How many stories hang on the abrupt about-face, the sneaky morph, expectations defied? What would Taxi Driver be if Travis Bickle simply shot the president and went to jail? Expectations are the boxes into which we lock each other. They lower anxieties in a crowded, chaotic world. They’re indictments in the kangaroo court of the mind. Believing that we can predict others’ behavior gives us a sense of power. We say we like surprises, but we don’t.
This plays out in dime-a-dozen plots involving obedient children and spouses who rebel. A “delicate daughter, brought up to be a lady,” is imprisoned in her bedroom for a year after declaring her love for a lower-class man in “Hannah and Benjamin,” a story in Sophie Judah’s collection Dropped from Heaven (Schocken, $23). Hannah’s parents, an Indian lawyer and his wife, are certain that she cannot “do so unladylike a thing as escaping.” She does.
Changing from era to era, culture to culture, expectations are like symptoms. In Girls Gone Mild (Random House, $22.95), Wendy Shalit ponders a new phenomenon: young females who don’t service strangers and dress like hos. Crazy, eh? Shalit interviewed hundreds who buck peer pressure, advertisements, the Bratz aesthetic, and Eve Enslerism by wearing less-than-skintight clothes, rapping about abstinence, and refusing to go girl-on-girl to entertain guys. They defy the expectations of a culture in which, Shalit laments, “being publicly sexual has become the only acceptable way for girls to demonstrate maturity. … Looking ‘wild’ and acting ‘wild’ are supposed to be empowering, but more often they lead to misery, especially for young women who quickly learn to put their emotions in a deep freeze in order to do what is expected.”
And what’s expected, Shalit contends, “is that girls today have to be ‘bad’ to fit in.” As if rushing to prove her right, the Bad Girls (Norton, $24.95) anthology appeared in stores a week after Shalit’s book, offering 26 true accounts by established female writers of “acting badly.”
“Bad behavior lives in our souls,” announces editor Ellen Sussman, a Northern California novelist whose bio describes her as “a bad girl.” In one story, Maggie Estep writes about her affair, at fifteen, with a married horse thief; her friend Lisa — a self-proclaimed “drunken slut” — keeps delivering riffs like this: “All men are homos basically. They want to fuck us up the ass, but they also want us putting stuff up their asses.” Other stories explore one-night stands. Daphne Merkin’s is titled “Penises I Have Known.” Tobin Levy jokes that she was “a disturbingly good suburban teenager” before discovering Madonna.
“Bad girls don’t follow the rules,” Sussman proclaims. But Shalit would argue that of course they do, because the goalposts have shifted. Sussman, even while casting badness as outrageous, dangerous, a “bubbling cauldron,” and a “delicious power,” takes the wink-nudge universality tack: “There are a lot of us acting badly out there.” She wants it both ways in a world where nothing is shocking anymore. Mainstreaming anything that much gives it a flat, predictable apple-cinnamon taste. By claiming to defy our expectations, such books meet them.
Shalit’s interviewees do defy expectations in that they aren’t all geeks or evangelicals. Most are regular kids whose boomer parents, envious perhaps, pressure them to go farther faster. Some are fervent feminists, such as the fourteen-year-old who tours Canadian college campuses denouncing as robotic and retrograde her classmates’ desire to please boys.
Bjorn Lomborg is a vegetarian environmentalist academic. So you’d assume he’d be at the forefront of global-warming activism. Yet in Cool It (Knopf, $21), the Danish economist shreds standard climate-change memes, from hurricane panic to vanishing polar bears. We embrace global warming as the world’s most pressing problem because it makes us feel like heroic do-gooders, Lomborg charges, but “once you look closely at the supporting data, the narrative falls apart.” He goes on to demonstrate this in case after case. Deriding the “extreme hype,” the “hysteria and headlong CO2-cutting programs at an unprecedented price” that characterize current attitudes, Lomborg argues that our efforts would be better focused on comparatively cheap, simple projects with more immediate effects. Improving sanitation and water supply in Africa would, he argues, avert almost one billion cases of diarrhea annually. Lowering speed limits would save countless lives.
“Picture a world where more than half the world’s population doesn’t succumb to developmental deficiencies from malnutrition,” he writes. “Envision a time when rich world agriculture isn’t heavily subsidized, actually allowing the third world to sell its products in first-world markets.”
Lomborg concedes that his thesis will be attacked: “At present, anyone who does not support the most radical solutions to global warming is deemed an outcast and is called irresponsible and is seen as possibly an evil puppet of the oil lobby.”
He remains defiant, urging us to “fix our priorities.” Surely he realizes that he sends chills down spines with such assertions as “Yes, climate change is a problem, but it is emphatically not the end of the world.”
A natural-foods expert who started London’s first farmers’ markets, Nina Planck was an oil-shunning vegetarian for years. Yet she was “plump and grumpy.” So she started eating meat, fish, and full-fat cheese — and slimmed down and felt better. In Real Food (Bloomsbury, $14.95), Planck calmly dismantles her own past persona by assembling scientific and medical studies to promote bacon, butter, lard, and coconut oil while ripping canola oil a new one.
“Girls like me,” writes Bridget Kinsella in her memoir Visiting Life (Harmony, $24), “don’t grow up to visit convicted murderers in maximum-security prisons.” And what sort of girl is that? “Cheerleader. Yearbook editor. The dutiful youngest daughter of five in a loving Irish-Italian working-class family.” Also Columbia grad, Publishers Weekly editor, and literary agent. Asked to read the manuscript of a thirty-year-old inmate who had shot and killed a man at nineteen, Kinsella was captivated. Soon enough, “I know I want to take this leap. I want this secret love.” Seeing CDC#K78728 as “a man I’ve loved for a lifetime,” she lives for those afternoons at the visiting yard.
Sometimes the boxes we’re in are those we built ourselves.