Sunday, July 7, 2019

Eleanor Oliphant? Not So Fine

I rarely read fiction, so maybe just ignore this rant. I know little about this kind of thing, but it might get me writing again after a dry spell, and it's at least a distraction from the world at large. Tra la la.

I was recommended this book, and it's being optioned by Reese Witherspoon. I loved Wild, so I thought this might be worth the Kindle edition at least. I was horribly mistaken.

Many spoilers below in my top six reasons why I really hate this book: 

#1. It's just the "Skilled, but Naive" trope done without any creative flourish. Eleanor is amazing at her accounting job such that none of the other morons at work could do nearly so well. Her shtick is crossword puzzles and an extraordinary vocabulary, which augments her brilliance with accounts receivable. But, alas, she's clueless when it comes to social interactions and most other things involving day-to-day life. Luckily she meets a guy who can help guide her through the world (and get her to a suitable therapist). This is a generational thing, but it mostly reminded me of Mork and Mindy, in which an alien with special powers but no understanding of social conventions is taken under the wing of some random person with little social life of their own, but who is seen as an optimal educator of customs - maybe because they have lots of time on their hands. There's little that connects them beyond a chance encounter. 

#2. The book is marketed as hilarious, which means we're supposed to laugh at the awkward social interactions. She's so quirky! Eleanor has exceptional difficulties with socializing, and it's curious the way it's presented for our amusement. Writing that provokes the audience to laugh at someone with a disability or disorder can be done well if the character is in on it and laughing at themselves. Jenny Lawson and David Sedaris describe their own difficult lives with incredible humour, but this is a character who is made fun of, and I think we're expected to join in. It felt in poor taste. And it just wasn't funny to me. Apparently, I'm in the minority on that though. 

#3. Make-overs save the day!! And capitalism!!  And conformity!! She didn't realize that people would like her so much more if she just got with the program and bought some brand name clothes and expensive make-up, and then redecorated her apartment like she's Charlie from Flowers for Algernon. Wouldn't it be nice if people grew to like her because they discovered she was funny or smart or helpful rather than because she got a new haircut?! Remember that Marlo Thomas movie, Nobody's Child? That did an exceptional job of showing the transition of a woman from social outcast to leader with nary a discussion of eyeshadow. It is possible for people to be perceived differently for more than the most superficial reasons. But people love a good make-over story. And of course he likes her better without make-up!  (But why?? What does he like about her?? Give me something to go on!)

#4. The book is an exploration of loneliness, how people cope and how they reconnect, but it focuses on one experience that's completely explained away by childhood abuse without further developing the possibility that many people from healthy childhoods are lonely, including those surrounded by people. It's simplistic in its comparison between the lonely and the connected. It almost suggests that the quiet girl at the office needs your sympathy because she must have experienced some massive trauma that kept her away from the makeup counter. 

#5. It asks us to root for a burgeoning toxic relationship. The guy in her life (possibly a friend, but there are hints that they're headed for more), invites her to an event as his plus-one, but then he makes out with the hot girl right in front of her. Then later he rejects the hot girl because she's "high maintenance" (WTF) and sort of goes for the plain girl, our Eleanor. I suppose it means they're a better fit, being both physically less than ideal. But, firstly, how well can someone connect in a relationship if they choose their potential partner based primarily on effort required, and secondly, Eleanor is a serious alcoholic with profound mental health issues and a severely narrow view of what constitutes acceptable behaviour in others, so in what world is she "low maintenance"? Whatever. He becomes her hero after helping her pick herself up from a drunken bender, but we're not supposed to mind that he used her in order to have a date to a party where he had full intentions of ditching her to get snogging. Even if they are just friends, that's not how you treat your buddy! But then he rescues her from a rapey dude in the knick of time, so it's all good. Instead of the protagonist developing an insight about life on her own and growing from her own journey, she's pushed along by a dude who openly laughs at her misunderstandings. How sweet and noble of him to befriend such a fuck-up! I know we're all just muddling along here, but the fact that he's sometimes nice to her doesn't override the fact that he sometimes uses her, even going as far as suggesting she visit his mother to keep the old girl company!  

#6. There are inconsistencies in her understanding of reality. She misses very common references and idioms in conversation because she was kept from such low culture as TV shows by her horrid mother, so she's constantly baffled by typical dialogue, unbelievably so, but then, from time to time, she makes similar pop culture references herself. AND she was in foster care since she was ten, where I'd imagine the cultural standards would be far less severe, and she might have glimpsed a television here and there. The foster parents are nondescript, neither abusive nor loving. Apparently they had no effect on the remainder of her adolescence. She also works with a computer, but had never used one outside of work. Until she met the catalyst for all her change, another cardboard cutout of a character, she had zero curiosity about the world wide web and all it had to offer. There's just not much to her beyond her tragic backstory and her relationship to the real or imagined men in her life, and what there is, a judgmental arrogance that's barely dampened by developing insights, isn't particularly likeable. 

Anyway, it's Sybil meets Pay it Forward, but maybe Witherspoon can work some magic with it. 

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