Herself, Only Reversed

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The Hollywood dreams of this novel’s heroine are much like the tenets of her fundamentalist upbringing: first sacrifice, then redemption, then apocalyptic paradise.

In his writing workshops at the University of Virginia, John Casey used to tell MFA students they should never include characters’ dreams in their fiction. His reasoning had something to do with the obviously inventive nature of fiction, that dreams were at an even further remove from this first fictive remove from reality. And that was just one too many removes. Or something.

Jenny Hollowell and I were both students of Casey’s, and in Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe, her first novel, Hollowell bravely, and perhaps intentionally, ignores her teacher’s warning. This is a book all about dreams: the ones we populate in our sleep, the ones we envision for our future, and the ones we may be drifting through in the here and now. The entire novel has the darkly melancholic and subterranean feel of a sudden waking from an accidental nap. This literal world of dreams is complemented and complicated by the heroine’s obsession with the very dream-like world of filmmaking.

Birdie Baker, the protagonist of Everything Lovely, realizes by the age of eight, that her strongest dream and desire is to become someone else. Young Birdie feels equal parts guilt and desperation as she tries to distance herself from her religious-zealot parents, who preach door to door and await a fiery Apocalypse. As an adolescent, she continues to imagine herself out of her reality by gazing in reflective surfaces, trying on a stranger’s poses and pouts; when she is deflowered (sexually and photographically) by a local boy, this epiphanic experience leaves her changed forever. To Birdie, posing naked for the first time “is like being packed into a suitcase or being sucked through a straw. It is like being smaller than any small thing, so small that she turns inside out and grows back again. So that she is herself, only reversed, like in the mirror. The same size, only flatter, smoother, calmer.”

Determined to cast off her ultra-religious Southern upbringing, Birdie does what many literary and filmic heroines before her have done: She moves to Los Angeles to become a famous actress. This is an old and familiar story, one whose ending we may anticipate from the start; however, Birdie’s personality is what makes this territory feel new. Her wry humor and faux-cynicism make her almost lovable—even as she continues to behave in ways we know will not do her, or anyone else, any good.

In L.A., Birdie meets her match in Redmond, a man even more coolly pragmatic and self-protective than she, who wisely refuses to sleep with Birdie, all the while recognizing her unusual beauty or star-quality. Redmond becomes her agent—he finds her work and a place to live, he takes her to important parties and makes sure she meets the right people. These star-lit parties are almost Gatsby-esque in both their descriptive glamour and frantic unhappiness. It is in these scenes that Hollowell frequently does her best writing, infusing the gorgeous California evenings and the beautiful people drifting through them with a sadness as palpable as the lemon-scented air.

Hollowell also perfectly captures the humor and the horror inherent in Birdie’s climb toward fame. During her nine-years sojourn in L.A., Birdie makes the requisite sacrifices required of young attractive females in Hollywood. She laughs at unfunny jokes and performs at humiliating auditions and fucks unfuckable men, all for the dubious honor of starring in a tampon commercial (“Ultra-extra-mega-dry”) and as an “ass double” for more famous actresses. Though Redmond keeps promising that soon, soon she’ll land the part that will change everything, all Birdie knows is that she is getting older. And sadder. And less marketable.

Then along comes trouble, or salvation, as Birdie meets Lewis, a young actor-wannabe whose idealism and honesty are a living reminder of what Birdie could have been. But now the movie role that Redmond has been promising forever also arrives. What Birdie does with these two opportunities—a choice between fame and self-realization—is perhaps less surprising than it should be; Hollowell, however, may be trying here for something that remains faithful to Birdie’s original vision of happiness via personal abnegation:

In this daydream, the cameras flash and the crowd roars and pants and shouts Birdie! Birdie! Birdie! Her name rains down on her head like flower petals. The girl that they adore is the girl she wants to be: nothing but beauty, someone else’s happy dream. How beautifully, beautifully blank she could be, her failures forgotten, blasted away by the roar of her name being shouted and those lovely bright flashes of light.

In the end, Birdie’s notions of salvation are not that far removed from the tenets of her early religious upbringing: first comes sacrifice, then redemption, and finally apocalyptic paradise. Birdie’s paradise, however, resides neither on earth nor in heaven, but in a filmic space between. And her acceptance of dream over reality, of becoming object rather than subject, is perhaps all the more lamentable because it appears to be so self-aware.

Unfortunately, Birdie’s understanding of her own motivations is not fully shared by the reader. Like Marilyn Monroe (to whom the novel’s epigraph alludes), Birdie is both less and more than human, as receptive as a blank screen upon which others can project their own dreams, and yet ultimately inscrutable. Her intentional self-obliteration, however, would be more believable and finally more tragic if it progressed gradually over the course of Everything Lovely, but Hollowell’s protagonist is unknowable from the start. For a novel that takes its time and is as internal as this one, in the end we learn little about what makes Birdie tick. Still, while Hollowell’s depiction of Birdie’s trajectory from wistful, dream-sick teenager to slightly sadder adult could have included more actual change, her novel’s lush, biting language makes it worth the read.

Valerie Brelinski is a writer living in San Francisco. She is a former Wallace Stegner fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. More from this author →