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May 2, 2010

Girl Crazy by Russell Smith

Russell Smith’s latest novel Girl Crazy is an exercise in downward spiral, beginning with Justin Harrison arriving at a park that’s a pit in an attempt to go swimming in a pool that’s closed. Weaving in and out of traffic reminds him of rickshaws and Bombay, except now it’s Mumbai, and Justin experiments with the sound of his voice: “Mumbai”. And then he says it again, because he’s fascinated by the unfamiliar syllables and by the sound of his voice, and he’s fascinated by the latter because he’s unsure of it.

Justin is connected to nothing, except the internet, though he also maintains a steady relationship with a video game called Sandstorm III (Shiek Assassin). From these two, he’s provided with outlets for sex and violence, respectively, and otherwise his life is empty. His ex-girlfriend Genevieve purports to care about him, though these days she’s just a voice on the phone and her intentions are questionable. He no longer relates to his friends from university, who are obsessed with their careers, status, and restaurants Justin can’t afford to eat at. He’s the victim of a liberal-arts education: entitled, ubiquitous and underemployed. He teaches at a community c0llege, classes like “Business English” and “Email Etiquette”, with students who are only there to get their qualification and not actually to learn. The only thing he knows how to cook is pasta, with sauce from a jar. He is 32 years old, he’s been drinking in the same bars for a decade, and there’s no sign of change on the horizon.

On the Mumbai day, however, he meets a girl in the park who’s wearing sexy sweatpants. This is significant for two reasons, the first that we actually do live in an age where sweatpants are sexy, raising the possibility that nothing is sacred. The second reason being that Justin Harrison would find any item of clothing sexy, actually. If the girl in the park had been wearing a barrel, he would have fantisized about the way the rim dug into the flesh on her upper arms, and then gone home to masturbate.

The girl is wearing sexy sweatpants though, and very little else, and she’s swearing into a payphone in a state of distress. Justin goes out of his way to help her out, she takes his number, and a few days later they meet up for a drink.

Jenna comes from a different background than Justin, which is a polite way of saying her clothes are cheap, she looks like a stripper and hasn’t got to and too straight. Justin, of course, finds all this quite a turn-on, and Jenna is happy to play along– turns out she needs a place to stay, anyway, and there are some people she owes some money to, and any chance Justin could spot her the cash in the meantime?

The downward spiral is irreversible by this point, and Justin finds himself experimenting with a new life the same way he’d once tried out “Mumbai”. The results are illuminating– the respect he garners by walking a pit-bull, by walking down the street beside a girl who looked like Jenna. He becomes involved with drug dealers, illegal gambling, and becomes invested in a definition of manhood that he’d only ever been bystander to before. The spiral perhaps goes on too long, but the book is funny, smart, and devourable.

Justin’s objectification of women was surprisingly tolerable to me, even interesting. It made sense within the context of the novel and of his character, as opposed to seeming like an extension of a lecherous writer’s fantasies (which is all too common). As a feminst reader, it made me uncomfortable, but its gratuitousness was not gratitutious. The point is that Justin is not at all empowered by these experiences, that he’s even disempowered (though the argument goes that the women he watches are the ones that hold the power, and though I’m not convinced by this, it’s worth considering).

The best thing about the novel for me was Jenna though, and not just because she bore an uncanny likeness to my former basement-neighbour who used to beat up her boyfriend because he didn’t “have her back” and because his mother judged her.  Jenna is the kind of girl who doesn’t get along with girls because girls are catty. Smith pulls no punches with her character, she’s completely psycho, and it’s almost refreshing not have to feel sympathy for her, that Smith hasn’t concocted some sobby backstory– sympathy is not the point. Jenna is manipulative, amoral, dishonest and awful, and she makes for a wonderous explosion on the page.

Justin is transformed by his experience with Jenna, his own narrative by the end of the novel taking on “the perspective in a video game”. The novel’s ending is ambiguous, suggesting that Justin has finally taken his experiment in hypermasculinity too far, but also offering the possibility of redemption.

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