The XX Factor

Book of the Week: “Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe”

The best thing about this debut novel is that it further demonstrates Jenny Hollowell ’s considerable literary talent. Raised a Jehovah’s witness in Virginia, now living in Los Angeles, she has personally traveled the landscape of her protagonist Birdie Baker’s life and lived to tell about it. Baker, always told she ought to be in pictures, leaves her family of Virginia evangelists to pursue an acting career in Hollywood. Seven years later, her success amounts to several stints as a body double, setting the stage for Hollowell’s deliciously acerbic, sobering critique of life in the biz. Birdie dutifully performs the grooming rituals of the struggling actress: She auditions for tampon commercials and an independent film from a production company called “Serious Pictures” and attends bacchanals at the homes of people fame and money have rendered grotesque. When she confesses to a producer she has just slept with that she has never seen his best-known film, he yells at her, “Who the fuck are you … some neglected demographic?”

Unfortunately, this book also sounds familiar, too familiar. Chapters are short and many, the Santa Ana winds blow, and there is a lot of drinking alone on the patio. The object of Hollowell’s admiration and imitation is pretty obviously Joan Didion’s iconic Play It As It Lays , a bold move on Hollowell’s part. Didion’s novel captured the malaise of its moment with images as brutal as they are brilliant; it succeeds in part because it is stunningly unforgiving of its characters. In amoral, utterly self-involved, almost inhuman Maria Wyeth, roaming the freeway eating hard-boiled eggs, Didion created one of the most detestable female characters since Lady Macbeth.

Hollowell never manages Didion’s edge, which would be fine if the author didn’t seem to be striving to achieve it. Hollowell make Birdie sympathetic-self-made, jaded but not entitled, haunted by the doomsday tidings of her childhood. We recognize her, we want her to make it, and thus she cannot really shock us. There is also the plain fact that Hollowell is not a Didion, not yet, at least. For every inspired metaphor, like the fly “carcass” trapped in Birdie’s wet nail polish, who makes her wonder if she is similarly disposable, clichés abound-petals fall, ice cubes receive close examination. Overall, Everything Lovely reads like a tribute novel, a reproduction or riff rather than an original. Read it for a taste of Hollowell’s gift, so clear in passages like this one where Birdie considers why men are drawn to silent women: “She did not seem to want them so they pursued her to discover the reason. She was the instrument they used to measure themselves. … They saw what the camera saw, a certain detachment that they could fill with whatever they wanted.” Her young love interest, she decides, “searched her for what he had not yet found within himself.” Then hope that Hollowell’s second book is the brilliant novel that is surely in her, one that is all her own.