Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger
When Eat My Heart Out first appeared in the UK last year, the reviews were generally positive. A reviewer for the New Statesman called it “a perfectly pitched satire of intergenerational conflict.” A Guardian critic praised its “fresh and clipped dialogue” and “novel metaphors.” And a writer for the Financial Times lauded the book’s “brilliantly odd intro” and “vicious satire,” and declared it “very funny.” Given that the main character is a troubled 23-year-old woman trying to deal with love and life in a big city (London), it was perhaps inevitable, if not very imaginative, that the novel would be compared by both mainstream critics and bloggers to the HBO series Girls.
Which makes me wonder if any of them has ever seen Girls. Those who compare the two note that the book and the TV show both “lack likeable characters” which isn’t quite true. The characters in Girls are neurotic and often dislikable, but they are well-enough written and portrayed that you can see where both their neuroses and their dislikable traits come from; as a result we can often forgive them and sometimes like them. The characters in Eat My Heart Out are flat-out insane and truly, utterly dislikable. Maddeningly, we never have any idea why. Frankly, they’re not really characters: if they were we would have some idea why they are… the way they are. Instead they’re a pastiche of names, physical characteristics, and increasingly bizarre and repulsive behavior.
In the “brilliantly odd intro,” the narrator, Ann-Marie, arranges a date with Vic, a man whom she has approached with an Aspergian awkwardness. She hides at the agreed-upon meeting place, watching him wait. When he decides he’s been stood up and walks away, she chases him and jumps on his back. “He tried to push me off,” she tells us, “but I clung and clung and clung.” For reasons unclear to any sane person, Vic takes her home, where she tells us, “I snapped [a condom] on his penis efficiently. It began to die.” A conversation ensues in which Vic tells her he doesn’t like “the sensation of condoms.” This exchange is typical of the disconnect with reality typical of much of the action in Eat My Heart Out, and Pilger’s problems with language. The reality is most men don’t like the sensation of condoms, which a near-century of the history of latex has shown to be irrelevant to men who actually want sex. The problem is more likely that something was “snapped” on Vic’s penis. I can think of few words that less accurately describe the process of putting on a condom, and “snapping” just sounds like something that would feel… unpleasant. After this interlude of not-sex, Ann-Marie is convinced that she and Vic are in love. Vic isn’t remotely interested in her until she recounts via email that she once boiled someone’s pet hamster to death. This knowledge sends Vic into a self-destructive tailspin of sexual obsession, which makes no narrative sense given that we’ve learned nothing about him that suggests he would aroused by gratuitous cruelty.
Eat My Heart Out gets stranger and more revolting in ways that serve no narrative purpose. Pilger seems to think it’s enough to write scenes that are ridiculous and provocative. There’s none of the eerie logic that drives a good comic story. Instead we get a series of one-offs. At a restaurant where Ann-Marie works, the chef fucks the skinned rabbits before cooking them. An art exhibition features performance pieces that involve Ann-Marie’s flatmate Freddie hitting bees with a tennis racket, and another in which Allegra, the frenemy who owned the unfortunate hamster, pushes her collaborator into a tub of boiling water. Stephanie Haight, an international authority on women’s self-actualization, takes Ann-Marie under her wing, a mentorship that includes an episode in which Haight locks Ann-Marie into a room and makes her sing Beyoncé and Roberta Flack until she collapses in exhaustion. And the aforementioned Allegra decides to take her revenge on Ann-Marie for, well, any number of things, by smearing her feces on the walls of Ann-Marie’s bedroom.
Then there’s the issue of Pilger’s odd, grating language. She’s certainly earned herself a nomination for the next Bad Sex in Fiction Award. In addition to the aforementioned snapped condom, there’s Ann-Marie’s unfortunate description of a facial from Vic later on in the novel: “He came, volcanically, all over my face. His semen felt like warm rain.” Makes you wonder what the weather in London’s like these days.
Pilger’s sorry excuse for a story and comically bad language are all the more disappointing given the occasional flickering indications that she has the potential to be a decent writer. A couple of times there are snippets of dialogue that made me giggle with a sense of recognition, as real humor often does, such as when Ann-Marie is listening to an American musician she knows sing, “You promised you’d be different this time, that you weren’t like all the other guys, but you… let me down.” “Is he talking about a former… boyfriend?” Ann-Marie whispers to the singer’s husband. The answer? “No, he’s talking about Obama.” And Stephanie Haight, learning that Ann-Marie is considering applying to MFA programs, says in disgust, “And do you think the vocation of the creative writer can be learned in a class? Do you not think that the vocation has a sacrosanct, a sacredly transgressive quality that is anathema by its very nature to the structure of an institution?” Those remarks are a perfect send-up of the sort of faux revolutionary, anti-academic posturing that flourishes in doctoral programs.
But these glimmers of genuine comedy don’t save Eat My Heart Out. I don’t care what other reviewers say. Skip this book. There are others out there more deserving of your time. Or just watch Girls.