by Jennifer Spiegel
$ 14.95, 292 pages
Having just turned thirty when the story starts at the end of 1994, Sybil Weatherfield, the protagonist/narrator of Jennifer Spiegel’s debut novel, Love Slave, is taking stock of her life, as are many of her friends who have reached a similar stage. Sybil lives in New York City and works as a temp, by definition a position that has no professional aspirations, though temps themselves often have secret identities akin to Superman/Clark Kent — poets, writers, actors, musicians. Indeed, Sybil writes a column for the New York Shock and has a small, cult-like fan base and vague aspirations to “hit the big time,” even as she champions the goal-less existence of the temporary office worker. Still, at the age of thirty, she is taking stock of her life in a major way. Where does she go from here? Does she stay in New York? Return to California? Her friends face similar choices.
As 1995 begins (the year of the Oklahoma City bombing and the OJ Simpson trial) , Sybil, a San Diego transplant who has been trying to make it in New York for the past six years, encounters Rob Shachtley in a Laundromat. Rob is the lead singer of a group called Glass Half Empty. In their own modest ways, both are celebrities, she as a Dorothy Parker-esque columnist writing witty, iconoclastic observations for a downscale Village Voice-like newspaper (“Abscess” is the title of her column), he as a self-styled “rock star” with a similar small but devoted fan base. Rob has also come to New York in search of stardom, from Providence, RI. A Platonic but complicated friendship ensues. Rob is still in mourning for the child-bride who died from brain cancer half a dozen years before, still wearing his wedding band; Sybil is involved with an uptown financial analyst whose safe, conservative values she finds contemptible though nevertheless she regards him as her “boyfriend.” Playing it safe be damned! Rob and Sybil have big, if inchoate, dreams. Together, Sybil and Rob exemplify that romantic, if clichéd lyric made famous by Sinatra:
If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you, New York, New York.
The fourth major character in the novel, in addition to Rob, Sybil, and her square boyfriend Jeff Simon, is Madeline Blue, Sybil’s best friend. Madeline, with her pierced belly button, job at Rights International and ESL night class teaching, is Sybil’s enabler, the two of them supporting each other’s intensely idealistic lives. Throughout the novel they engage in conversations about the evil of “nostalgia,” living in the past, “artistic freedom,” and the license it provides to pursue a hand-to-mouth existence, in pursuit of what Sybil calls “grandeur.” As Socrates said, the unexamined life is not worth living.
Rob and Sybil look out for each other and maintain a Platonic distance, even as each sporadically longs for the other. In one telling conversation, after Sybil’s controversial column entitled “The Missing Tampon Story” is published in New York Shock, Rob wonders if Sybil is hurting her boyfriend with the frank, even brutal things she says about him in her “Abscess” stories.
“Rob, we’re artists.” [Sybil says] I’m smug and ironic. “You know that.” This week Shock features a section on performance art: its sociological and philosophical impact on modernity. “Anything for my art.” I blow on my coffee. “My artistic agenda makes sense of my temping and all the crap that goes with it.” I smirk but sound gloomy. “Since I’m an artist, it’s okay that I can’t hold down a job or get a man to love me for longer than it takes to walk a dog around the block.”
Enter the concept of the “love slave.” A love slave is a person in a committed relationship. It’s also a life choice that seeks permanence as opposed to the instability of the freedom embodied in the temp ethos. The “love slave” represents the essential tension in the novel between the unfettered freedom of the id — what New York ultimately means to these characters — and the compromises of adulthood. When Jeff casually asks Sybil if Rob and his band member Dave have any “plans,” Sybil jumps all over her square boyfriend for not allowing Rob to “just live.” Concern about the future is for squares. But more and more, now that she is thirty, Sybil wonders if maybe it isn’t time to quit her New York lifestyle and pursue a professional career, go back to school, or something. Madeline and Rob have the same questions, of course, and at the end of the novel Madeline leaves New York for Guatemala, to be a rights worker, still idealistic but no longer mired in the denial that New York has increasingly become for them. (“We think we’re so terribly chic and smart and one step ahead because we wear mismatched clothes and think in one-liners,” Sybil comments bitterly to herself at one point after a trip to Long Island to gawk at the hopeless suburbanites.) Dave Stomps, married and with a kid, likewise decides to return to Providence, effectively bringing an end to Glass Half Empty.
I won’t spoil the novel by revealing its ending, but it’s a satisfying one, though maybe predictable in an odd, ambiguous sort of way.
Spiegel draws her characters with admirable specificity so that they come alive on the page, particularly Sybil, whose bulimia, for one thing, is shown in uncomfortable detail. Chapters narrated in the first-person present tense are interspersed with two-column newspaper samples from Sybil’s column, “Abscess.” New York City itself also comes alive in Spiegel’s detailed description.
Many of the concerns in this novel, from characters trying to live authentic, purposeful lives, lives that are examined and deliberate, to the concept of “freaks” — oddballs, pariahs, self-exiled loners — are found in Spiegel’s short stories as well, collected in The Freak Chronicles, likewise published this year. I personally found her short stories more compelling than this novel and the examination of the dichotomies of authentic/inauthentic, square/hip, spiritual/materialistic, etc. more starkly represented, but Love Slave is certainly worth checking out, maybe in combination with the stories. Read both books! You’ll enjoy Spiegel’s style, which is witty, intelligent and introspective, contemporary and timeless: a story with which you can identify.