MAY 12, 2015
YOU ARE A LIE. We all are. Every day we wake up and put on an outstanding performance. Our gender, our social class, and our relationships are carefully crafted to meet a set of expectations — a topic no longer limited to seminars in critical theory. We can find evidence of this new phenomenological era, for instance, in the female protagonists of recent popular fiction. Consider the “cool girl” rant in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a how-to guide for achieving self-awareness of one’s fluid femininity. Especially in the realm of crime fiction, where the reinvention of self is prelude to conflict, asserting control over that performance becomes the centerpiece to great stories — and even greater social commentary. Jessica Knoll’s debut novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, is yet another work that proves crime fiction is a woman’s territory.
The novel centers around TifAni FaNelli, a young successful woman who, like the title suggests, is lucky by modern society’s standards. She is beautiful, has a job she adores as editor at The Women’s Magazine, and is about to get married to a rich heir. And, best of all, she is on her way to the Western woman’s mecca: size zero. Of course, this luck is no accident, because she has invented this version of herself at the expense of a previous version. As the story unfolds, TifAni — or Ani, as she prefers to be called now — sees her old life come back to challenge and question everything she has ever wanted, and now has. The road between her humble origins on the outskirts of the Main Line to her Manhattan apartment and blue-blood fiancé is a long one, and Knoll takes her time to develop one of the most carefully engineered and pop culture-inflected characters in recent crime fiction.
Luckiest Girl Alive is crime fiction at its best, proving the genre’s deep connections to society’s fears, ambitions, and ability to question the status quo. Knoll has created a complex text. On one level it is a story about the joys and hardships of being a young, middle-class woman in the still-patriarchal 21st century. (The pop culture references will ring a bell for millennials, taking them back to their tortured teenage years, when getting highlights was a matter of social respectability and a smile from the class heartthrob could make your day.) But the novel’s strength relies on the expert way in which Knoll’s previous jobs as a senior editor at Cosmopolitan and Self magazine have allowed her to tackle the most discussed topic in women’s life: the female body.
American philosopher Judith Butler constructed gender identity as a performance very similar to the ones we can see on stage, so that being a man and being a woman — gender being only one of the many variables that construct us — means acting out our ideas of what being a man and a woman is. This is one of the reasons Ani’s identity change does not stop at her name. The body becomes an institution central to her identity and as consequence, Ani, as a persona, is a charade in which her body becomes a tool. Because of the uncanny, almost psychopathic study Ani does of the “rich girl” she wants to become — remember that article on The Cut about how to get the new “Rich Girl” hairstyle? — she is also able to deconstruct it, to point out the many ways in which society constructs the female body as fluid, malleable, and reified. Her voice, convincing and opinionated, takes the reader through what being a successful, beautiful, and happy woman means in our society, and how the body stands as a symbol for the status one claims.
However, Knoll’s take on modern femininity is not as superficial as it may seem, as she explores the cons of diverging from the heroin-chic image that still dominates catwalks and media productions. This critique is achieved through Ani’s previous body, which had always been a source of problems. The novel presents us with an overtly sexualized female body as a sign of corruption and decadence, and does so with the elegance and wit of the classiest femme fatales in the best noir films. TifAni makes plenty of references to how her breasts and curvy figure got her into trouble, so much so, that when she and her friends were caught smoking pot in high school, only she was labelled as the corrupter. From that moment onward, the perception she has of her own body is filtered through the patriarchal reading of womanliness as a sin. Such a connection is highlighted by her unofficial post as the writer of sex advice at The Women’s Magazine because, as she sardonically points out, the other women are proud to claim their lack of knowledge about the issue. As a consequence, under this Stockholm syndrome, Ani starts to tame her body: to “tone down my beer commercial potential rather than capitalize on it.” She joins the cross-country team and focuses on keeping her weight down in an effort to silence her loud, feminine physique.
Her dream of a more androgynous body heightens when she is transferred to The Bradley School, one of the best schools in the Main Line, with tight connections to American academic aristocracy. It is during her stay in the school that she starts to question her own family’s values, aesthetics, and worth. As her name suggests, Ani’s father is Italian, and she makes it clear that there is also Irish blood running through her veins, a mix that — along with her curves — marks her as different, even less than her prep school classmates. And this prejudice is so engraved on the family’s mind that her mother’s loud ways offer a comic, yet pitiful contrast with the restrained aesthetic ideals of the Ivy League. A red BMW, obvious make-up, unaffordable beauty routines, and a life of over-spending emerge as the middle-class lifestyle Ani dreams of leaving behind: “Education, travel, culture — this is what any pennies pinched should be used for, never flashy cars, loud logos, or personal maintenance.”
Trying on her new friends’ aesthetic is a trial-and-error process. She gets the expensive highlights done, only to find out that they do not match her olive complexion, and the cheaper stylist — the only one she could pay for — cannot imitate a more expensive stylist’s techniques. This meaningful unfitting teaches Ani to identify and adapt (rather than mimic) complex social, gender, and class rules to her own body in order to transform herself.
Soon, that transformation becomes more of an imperative than a desire, as Ani learns lessons about the roles femininity plays in Bradley’s male-dominated teenage environment. In an early effort to fit in, she finds herself in the house of a classmate, surrounded by boys who will later gang-rape her. Like many other victims, she will not denounce them to the school’s headmaster. Shame and misogyny take a twisted turn when Ani’s running trousers, soaking in menstrual blood after her previous day’s run, are stolen and hung in the school hall in order to challenge her identity as a victim of sexual abuse. The physical manifestation of Ani’s female body — with all the odor, stains, and fluids that come along — is used as the ultimate proof of her guilt, as if being a young, healthy, sexual woman were a crime. Knoll extends this analysis, of atypical gender performance as transgression, to the boys as well. Arthur, one of Ani’s friends, goes through similar abuse because of his homosexuality. These tensions finally find an escape in a mass shooting that the students themselves compare to Columbine. When Ani survives the event — luckiest girl alive indeed — she also comes out wiser and determined to make her own path in life, no matter what it takes, even if that means playing with the rules. Fake it until you make it.
Her journey — which takes up most of the narrative — will be familiar to anyone in our society who pays attention to the many ways in which women’s bodies are codified to be erased, corrected, perfected, bettered, and labelled. The body is industrialized — and yet it has to look natural, as if no effort had been made! In order to achieve these effects, there is the compulsory purchase and mastering of products and tools that will eventually manufacture a constructed and socially acceptable female body. And although this task may seem extreme to some, Ani wisely crafts her allegiance to this discourse and all that it implies. In fact, she is so convincing, readers may find themselves running to a jar of cookies at the thought of starving themselves for two days, because the ideal can hit too close to home.
It is not a coincidence that Ani’s narration comes in the first person, constructing her own story with confidence that she has all your attention. Ani also makes it clear that she is aware of her curated and self-crafted identity, and is proud of how everything has turned out for her: “Stylish, successful, engaged, and all by twenty-eight years old, no less.” But it takes her a great part of the text to discover her real power as an outsider: to see the cracks and the gaps in the performance that she studies with the precision and discipline of a Julliard graduate. Judith Butler suggested that it is through these cracks that gender performances can be disrupted, questioned, and subverted to finally destabilize the system and break free from society’s impositions. However, in order to do so, one has to be fully aware of her place inside the system, for as Julia Kristeva suggests, there is no subversion from the outside.
It is no coincidence that when Ani finally gets to her desired size zero does she see through the smoke: she is not happier in a size zero than she was in a size two. All the hard work she put into starving herself and exhausting herself with two-hour workouts did not bring her the happiness promised in ads, but left her feeling hungry, exhausted, and devastated. Part of this ideal is her upcoming marriage to Luke, an Ivy Leaguer that has given her the emerald engagement ring, the Nantucket summerhouse, and the family that she has always dreamed of. But as she has almost secured it all, she starts to doubt, and questions arise about the reality behind the upper-class Eden she had in mind: racism, misogyny, and strict and gendered social norms rule a world that presents itself as quintessential respectability.
The great question that arises from reading Luckiest Girl Alive is what constitutes a crime, and why. At times of social change, crime fiction has proved an invaluable tool to explore the dialogue between the visible and the invisible in our society. While many will argue that the pressure to fit into a size zero does not seem the cruellest of crimes, the epidemics of anorexia and bulimia may tell a different story. Knoll’s narrative responds to the need to acknowledge there is room in the label “crime” to admit to the many ways in which society has dehumanized female bodies, while also denouncing current ideals of femininity — silenced, androgynous, and high maintenance — as tools of subversion. Widening the horizon for contemporary criminal narratives does not take away from what is deemed as “real criminality” — mass shootings, bullying, or theft — but rather, as Knoll’s narrative proves, enriches crime fiction as a genre. Not once are Ani’s issues with her body put aside or disregarded as less important than other crimes. The real mystery arises from whether she is more worried about the return of her physical former self or about past events coming out to haunt her.
Jessica Knoll is a writer to keep an eye on, especially after being compared to Gillian Flynn by Megan Abbott. The movie rights to Luckiest Girl Alive have been acquired by Pacific Standard, the production company that successfully adapted Flynn’s Gone Girl. However, I have found enough personality in Knoll’s debut novel to let her stand on her own, rather than label her “the next Gillian Flynn.” Knoll’s version of the feminist crime novel is more steeped in pop culture than Flynn’s, and Ani’s psyche has nothing to envy of Amy’s: they are both troubled, and they both put up outstanding gender and class performances. But while Amy is more private and emotional, Ani relies on modern fashion references that will thrill even Vogue, Cosmo, and Glamour readers. Knoll focuses on the external — the intoxicating number of images the media, both social and traditional, throw at us — because therein lies the truth that controls our identities. But images are not perfect, and like Butler highlighted, there are cracks in the system that will allow for the disruption of the status quo. Knoll’s novel is both crime fiction and commentary. Luckiest Girl Alive is the ultimate critical companion to millennial femininity.