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Beth KephartDespite the recent, entirely deserved success of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, Ian McEwan's Atonement and Carol Shields' Unless, novelists writing about the writing of novels have always been suspect. There's the "who cares?" factor, which is always difficult to transcend. There's the airlessness of such a construct. There's the danger that, in focusing on process, one neglects to tell a story.
In her aptly titled second novel, All Is Vanity, Christina Schwarz, the bestselling author of 2000's Drowning Ruth (an Oprah's Book Club pick), swims fearlessly out into such choppy waters and never returns to dry land. Her anti-heroine is Margaret, a formerly precocious child who realizes, at the age of thirty-three, that she has done nothing of meaning or import with her life. Yes, she is married to a thoughtful and mostly supportive man. Yes, she has had, until recently, a career as an English teacher at a private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But what she really wants is to be Somebody, and the quickest route to celebrity is linked, in her less-than-perspicacious mind, to novel writing. "Writing a novel, I believed, would be a way to achieve glittering success without the painful and humiliating apprenticeship other well-regarded careers required, and which I ought to have undergone in my twenties. Too late for that, I thought. I needed quick results."
Margaret hasn't the first clue, of course, about how to get started. She writes a first sentence—"Elaine pushed her fingers through her long, dark hair in the pearly dawn"—discerns its many flaws and stalls. She gives herself exercises, makes lists, buys a baby-naming book, color codes charactertraits, makes elementary notes on plot, paints the apartment, enrolls in a class, exasperates her husband, spends money she does not have and, most critically, engages in a long conversation with her best lifelong friend, Letty.
If Margaret was always the dominant one, Letty was forever the foil. They grew up as each other's yin and yang, and as adults they are no different. Whereas Margaret's obsession, in the pages to come, will revolve exclusively around the writing and nonwriting of the ersatz novel, Letty's obsession will concern her desperate efforts to enter the high society she and her husband can hardly afford.
These, then, are the two strands that Schwarz pulls together; this is the sole province of this book. The more Margaret's fiction stagnates, the more Letty stirs up real-life adventures, until it is Letty's e-mails that begin to provide the stuff of actual interest. What happens next is heavily foreshadowed: Margaret does not just begin to appropriate Letty's stories (which increasingly get told in page after page of punctuation-perfect, dialogue-rich, never-an-instant-of-shorthand e-mails; the sort of e-mails that rarely get sent in the real world); she encourages (through acts of both complicit silence and ghastly advice) Letty's Gatsby-style downfall. It's all grist for the writing mill, and, Margaret figures, she'll be able to make it up to Letty one way or the other, just as soon as celebrity arrives.
What Schwarz does not give her characters in terms of wisdom—Margaret's thoughts about writing are relentlessly juvenile, and Letty's chase after social status is overwhelmingly familiar—she compensates for by way of irony and tone. Both Margaret and Letty have a somewhat Bridget Jones way of speaking, a sort of playful self-mockery that teeters somewhere between cuteness and despair.
Says Margaret, about her attempt to focus on her "work": "This was a forced concentration, a grit-your-teeth-and-press-your-fist-to-your-forehead-in-imitation-of-'The Thinker' concentration, a concentration in which one quarter of the brain dragged the rest screeching with the handbrake pulled up hard. It resulted in halting words, painfully squeezed forth one by one, as in the proverbial blood from a turnip."
Meanwhile, Letty e-mails Margaret about her desire to live in a fancier abode: "If I were the kind of person that lived in that house, I wouldn't have painted my toenails in the car on the way to the party; I would not have told my babysitter to microwave frozen enchiladas for my children's dinner; I would have remembered to make an appointment at the vet. I would be serene; I would be respectable; I would be a better Letty. You scoff. Yes, I can hear you scoffing away. But you have to agree that surroundings are important. If you feel sunnier in a bright room than in a murky one, wouldn't it follow that in a spacious, well-organized house, you'd feel generous and in control?"
It all ends calamitously, of course, as Margaret pulls Letty out into darker and darker waters and Letty, desperate Letty, offers herself up to the sharks. To say more about the ending would not be fair to Schwarz or to the reader, and that's unfortunate, because the book's true strength lies in the way Schwarz rams the hapless ambitions of her female protagonists up against each other and turns what feels (for the longest time) like a frothy farce into something closer to tragedy.
There are real issues, for all writers, about the appropriation of other lives for the sake of art. Writing is fraught with moral dilemma. Schwarz circles these hard truths in All Is Vanity, but she is impeded, in the telling of her tale, by the tedious self-absorption of her characters, the almost absurd quality of their myopia. Besides, Schwarz proved that she has real talent with her first novel, that she does in fact know far more than the rudimentary basics of character and plot. Had Margaret had some of Schwarz's wisdom in her, had she found a way to express it, All Is Vanity would have likely transcended the many perils of its conceit.