Image by Kimberly Farmer

Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

On Readers and emily m. danforth's Plain Bad Heroines

After an introductory passage excerpted from The Story of Mary MacLane, emily m. danforth's Plain Bad Heroines opens with an assertion:

It's a terrible story and one way to tell it is this: two girls in love and a fog of wasps cursed the place forever after.

The narrator knows: this is a story, and every story has multiple ways of telling it. The narrator also knows you, the reader, and is comfortable correcting the assumption that you might "think you already know this story because of the movie made of it. Not so, but you'll discover that soon enough." One page later, after hints and nudges, plenty of "you" and "our purposes here" statements, the narrator makes a direct address:

Two lives are about to end, careful Readers.

As a literary device, direct address by the narrator is relatively uncommon now though it was quite popular before the twentieth century. One of the most famous examples of the technique, which is sometimes called "narrative intrusion," can be found in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre where Jane is the first-person narrator, and an authorial voice will often address the reader directly. Despite such a fine precedent, all the writerly advice websites will advise you against narrative intrusion, explaining (condescendingly) that unless it is employed skillfully, narrative intrusion will weaken a work of fiction.


emily m. danforth does not have this problem. Her use of narrative intrusion is skillful indeed. In her capable hands, the narrative voice is just one barb on the branch of brambles that is this book, one of the many ways it will enfold and ensnare you. Take for instance, that opening excerpt from Mary MacLane's scandalizing memoir: in it, she is writing about herself as the author of the memoir, and writing about herself as a character in the memoir, the heroine of the story and of her own life. As she laments the lack of "plain bad heroines," she makes reference to none other than Jane Eyre, a plain woman, to be sure, but one so full of moral righteousness as to make her "very unsatisfactory." MacLane's references are all from literary texts, revealing how she has constructed herself through the books she has read. But her writing was also born out of the frustration of never seeing herself represented in them. In those first pages of danforth's book, MacLane is established as both Writer and Reader.


This mirroring of Writer and Reader is but one example of mirroring in this book. Plain Bad Heroines toggles back and forth between Brookhants School for Girls at the turn of the twentieth century and present day Hollywood, where a movie is being made about what happened at Brookhants all those years ago. There is a romantically involved trio of women in the Brookhants era and a romantically involved trio of women in the modern era. But this mirror is no mere duplication; it is layered and nuanced, each mirror doubling and complicating its reflection in delicious, interwoven cleverness.


And MacLane's book is at the center of it all. Plain Bad Heroines is a book about books -- all of which are aware of themselves as books. Even the movie version plays with this meta-discourse, as it attempts to mix the planned, filmed footage with secretly filmed footage of the actors behind the scenes as the movie is being made. At the risk of sounding repetitive here, this unique structure is just part of the wonder of this book. There are cursed objects and tragic deaths, creepy songs and sexy moments, and all of it is masterful. At every turn, you can feel danforth winking at you, always in control, pulling the strings and performing the tricks, even the ones you may not even notice. And sometimes all that she's pulling out of that hat is honest and thoughtful characters and beautiful dialogue, like when Elaine tells Merritt:

Don't find yourself regretting this. You're much too young to haunt your own life.

MacLane was self-aware: a queer writer writing herself onto the page and urging future writers to see her and bring people like her to life in their books. danforth has done exactly as MacLane asks. Plain Bad Heroines is full of women, some beautiful and some not, all "bad" in unique ways, all queer and scandalizing and clever and brave -- just like MacLane. And the narrator? She's one, too. She invites us, those Dear Readers, to join her on her meandering path, to trust her (should we?), and to build the story together. For what is reading if not an act of collusion between the author and her Readers?


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