There But Not There
Nell Freudenberger's Stories of Escape
by Nell Freudenberger
"Travel," Emerson wrote, "is a fool's paradise." In "Self-Reliance," an essay he wrote after cutting short a year abroad, Emerson wearily advised future generations that "the soul is no traveler; the wise man stays at home." Yet what Emerson experienced as his century hurtled toward its end seems to have little relevance to the backpacked and Let's Go-guided set of today: Privileged young Americans continue to scuff sneaker toes over the cliffs of Dover with a tenacity no terrorist threat can stem, ignoring the world-weary Emerson's advice. Despite Emerson's warnings, the siren song of travel continues to beckon.
Certainly it beckoned Nell Freudenberger, who, at 26, has already had an exciting life on this continent--a Harvard grad, Freudenberger shot up through dronedom at the New Yorker, came to the attention of the magazine's fiction editor, published a short story in said magazine's debut fiction issue, and went on to secure a six-figure deal for a book she hadn't written yet. (By comparison, at 26, Emerson was a Unitarian "supply" preacher, which sounds a lot like the ecclesiastical equivalent of "janitor.") One assumes that as a fellow student at Emerson's alma mater, Freudenberger would have encountered Emerson's warnings; if so, she's ignored them. The five stories in her new book, Lucky Girls--set in India and beyond--are marked by an obsession with travel and exoticism that would have curled Emerson's sideburns. Each story, even the lone one set on American soil, is infused with a sense of outsiderness, the geographical distances standing in for emotional ones. Freudenberger's titular Lucky Girls capitalize on opportunities created for them long after the agoraphobic Emerson's lifetime; for these narrators, however, the ever-increasing span of the known world seems inversely related to their happiness.
Another curiously inverted relationship governs Lucky Girls: The more exotic the story's location, the more traditional the plot structure. Behind the sexy faux-'50s jacket design, beyond the orgy of literati names gracing the acknowledgements page, beyond Freudenberger's doll-perfect features and impossibly Teutonic last name, these are stories that have a sense of vocation as being stories--carefully plotted, fully formed, never melodramatic or preachy or mawkish or guilty of any of the basic sins of bad fiction. This is an excessively mannered fiction that makes me hunger for the sloppy instability of writing that feels tied up with risks; stories that take place not just on the geographic border between civilization and wilderness, but on an emotional one as well. And this, I think, is what Emerson inveighs against in "Self-Reliance" when he writes: "At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, that sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from."
Despite his xenophobia, Emerson is right; Freudenberger's narrators travel around the world to wake up not beside the great love for which they quest, but rather their own sad, unrelenting selves. Financially stable, beautiful, and often young, the privilege accorded to the Lucky Girls serves only to compound their unhappiness. This is the poor-little-rich-kid problem redux, although dressed up in saris and salwar kameez; it is, essentially, ennui--the same ennui Emerson expressed in 1841 and not at all unlike that which is articulated by Britney Spears in her 2000 hit single "Lucky": "She's so lucky/She's a star/But she cries in her lonely heart, thinking/If there's nothing missing in my life/Then why do these tears come at night?" And yet Freudenberger's narrators--moving through stories as outwardly polished but ultimately uninteresting as pop songs--do not attempt to find answers to the questions posed by Spears; like tourists, the Lucky Girls simply look.
The lack of emotional weight in Freudenberger's book proves that to meaningfully engage with a place--the way Joyce did with Dublin or Frank O'Hara did with New York--requires a willingness to hold still somewhere in the world. And while I think "Letter from the Last Bastion," the last story in the collection and the only one not set abroad, is technically the least successful--told in the archaic epistolary form, full of awkward jumps from past to present--it is the most compelling because it sends down roots into a textured emotional life that simply isn't present in the other stories. It sticks fast, as Emerson would say, "like an axis of the earth," and there's not a sari in sight.
Nell Freudenberger reads at Elliott Bay Book Company (101 S Main St, 624-6600) on Tues Oct 7 at 7:30 pm.