Essays — December 1, 2015 9:44 — 0 Comments
Against Where’d You Go, Bernadette – Alex Gallo-Brown
I recently moved back to Seattle after living away for almost seven years. One of the first things I read after I returned was Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012), the celebrated comic novel by Maria Semple. I sought it out mostly because of its setting: urban Seattle. I had long been surprised by how little the city was represented in contemporary literature. As a young writer growing up here, I had looked for writing that spoke to the city that I knew and mostly found writing about the Pacific Northwest—stories that were set near the city but almost never inside it.
So I was excited to learn that a new—or newish—novel set in Seattle had been met with such universal acclaim. It had been praised by The New York Times, blurbed by famous authors, and short-listed for a prestigious literary award. More even than its accolades, it had gained a wide audience: most of the people I knew in Seattle had actually read it. I felt that it was high time to dive in.
What I found was disconcerting. Ostensibly a satire, the novel chronicled a family of wealthy elites relocated from Los Angeles to Queen Anne. Elgin was a high-profile programmer for Microsoft; Bee, his daughter, was a precocious teenager who attended Galer Street, an idiosyncratic private school; Bernadette, mother and wife, was a celebrated architect—she had received the MacArthur Genius Award—whose main pastime now appeared to be complaining bitterly about Seattle.
Bernadette, through whose point of view much of the book’s vaunted humor is focalized, is eccentric, depressive, solitary, and exceedingly critical. She is also Semple’s most compelling—and maddening—character. She hates Seattle’s rain—or, more accurately, how often people talk about the rain. She despises local hairstyles. She detests how difficult it is to park. One e-mail to a friend begins this way: “Greetings from sunny Seattle, where women are ‘gals,’ people are ‘folks’…boyfriends and girlfriends are ‘partners,’ nobody swears but someone might occasionally drop the ‘f-bomb,’ you’re allowed to cough but only into your elbow, and any request, reasonable or unreasonable, is met with ‘no worries.”
These broadsides against local culture are funny, to a point, and account for much of the book’s popularity, both here and elsewhere. But the tirades take a darker turn when they target another population: the city’s street people. “I have never seen a city so overrun with runaways, drug addicts, and bums,” Bernadette writes. She hates their pit bulls, their rolling suitcases, their clever handwritten signs. “Seattle is the only city where you step in shit and you pray, please God, let this be dog shit,” she laments. More even than the homeless, she seems to hate the tolerance with which they are treated. “If you express consternation as to how the U.S. city with more millionaires per capita than any other would allow itself to be overtaken by bums, the same reply always comes back,” she writes. “‘Seattle is a compassionate city’.”
In these rants, Semple’s humor loses its anodyne flavor and acquires a more sour taste. I was reminded of James Baldwin, who wrote in the essay collection Nobody Knows My Name, “One’s merely got to listen…to what [people] think is funny, which is also what they think is real.” The more one listens to Bernadette, the more one begins to think that Semple and her readers believe that Bernadette’s rants are funny because they also think that they are real. This is unobjectionable when they come at the expense of female Seattleites’ hairstyles (“There are two hairstyles here: short gray hair and long gray hair”) or Canadians’ penchant for egalitarianism (“No wonder the only Canadians anyone’s ever heard of are the ones who have gotten the hell out. Anyone with talent who stayed would have been flattened under an avalanche of equality.”). But when they objectify the homeless, unemployed, or other marginalized people, one begins to have qualms.
And these kinds of jokes pile up. Bernadette may possess a special hatred for society’s losers but she is not the only affluent character (and all of Semple’s characters are affluent) to express antipathy for the poor. Audrey, Bernadette’s neighbor, describes an elevator of teenagers as “look[ing] like those horrible runaways who gather across from Westlake Center.” Bee, the novel’s otherwise sweet protagonist, sneers at a group of Argentinian street children (“Kids were kicking a ball among the trash, running with mangy dogs among the trash, even squatting to wash their clothes among the trash. It was totally annoying, like, would one of you just pick up the trash?”) and snubs her transient uncle, Van, who Semple depicts as a worthless freeloader (“As Van stood there smearing Chap Stick across his gross lips, I thought, I hope nobody sees me at the zoo with this guy”). Perhaps these lines are intended to demonstrate the insularity and insensitivity of Semple’s privileged characters. But the cumulative effect feels violent, rather like watching a wealthy standup comedian make fun of the poor.
This suspicion—that Semple is using her comedic gifts to elevate the wealthy and powerful rather than call them into question—is confirmed by book’s end, when the moneyed characters are redeemed and the dissolute disappear. Elgin breaks off an affair with a co-worker and recommits to his family. Audrey transitions from villain to hero in one fell swoop. Bee transfers back to Galer Street after leaving for Choate, an elite prep school on the East Coast. “At Choate, you talked about who your father was,” she writes. “Galer Street smelled like salmon, but at least the people were normal.” And Bernadette, in a cloying love letter to Bee, reveals that she has returned to practicing architecture and offers plans for their family’s future: “You will graduate Galer Street and go to Lakeside, Dad will continue making the world a better place at Microsoft, and we’ll move into a normal house…a Craftsman.”
This is supposed to be funny because earlier she railed against the Craftsman as the only type of acceptable architecture in Seattle, another example of the city’s “dreary provinciality.” Her concession at book’s end is meant to signal a purging of her pretension and a willingness to enter into a new life of normalcy. It is this notion of normalcy—articulated by both mother and daughter at book’s end—that is most insidious. It is not “normal,” after all, to attend private schools, whether Galer Street or Choate. Nor is it normal to work a prestigious job at Microsoft. It is not normal to reside in a large living space in Queen Anne for years without having to work. These are the abnormal advantages of a small minority of people.
After reading Semple, one would be forgiven for thinking that there are only two kinds of people who live in Seattle, those who drive Subarus and those who drive Mercedes. And in fact, Ollie-O, one of Semple’s most memorable minor characters, advances this very thesis. In a book of so many chattering voices, it is remarkable that almost none of Semple’s characters are middle class or poor, not unless you count the street people pulling around their belongings in suitcases, people who conveniently disappear once the wealthy characters cure themselves of their anger. At moments in the novel, one hopes that a true satire will emerge, one that skewers the privileged elite for their luxury problems and class hatred. But this never happens. Happiness, or at least normalcy, is found in accepting one’s place in the class structure, not in challenging it.
Given the current trajectory of Seattle, it is unsurprising that its most acclaimed work of literature in recent years was written by a member of the one percent for an audience who can read Bernadette’s description of house-hunting in Seattle and laugh without shuddering: “You know what it’s like to go to Ikea and you can’t believe how cheap everything is, and…before you know it you’ve dropped five hundred bucks, not because you needed any of this crap, but because it was so damn cheap? Of course you don’t. But if you did, you’d know what Seattle real estate was like for me.”
For the rest of us, those Seattle residents of more modest means who crave stories about the city we know, or the city we have known, I suppose that we will have to wait. Or we will have to write them ourselves.
The answer isn't poetry, but rather language
- Richard Kenney