Beauty Is Embarrassingby Hannah Doyle · January 25, 2017
The title “Beauty Is Embarrassing” comes from a documentary about artist Wayne White (a fun watch, especially if you like Pee-wee’s Playhouse), but this post is rather about pubescence and all of its attendant awk-ward-ness in coming-of-age stories, particularly Nancy Reisman’s story “No Place More Beautiful” in High 5ive: An Anthology of Fiction from Ten Years of Five Points (edited by Megan Sexton).
The story’s opening scene at an Ontario summer camp features one of the main characters suffering the shakes (probably a panic attack) four months after her mother’s death. A doctor is called: “He’s awkward, too clumsy to be a real doctor, nonetheless we trust him . . . Sophie’s like a dog hauled out of North Bay: chilled muscles, chilled lungs, chilled blue map of veins.”
The coming-of-age story, or Bildungsroman, is one of my favorite genres of story, its resonance beginning for me during my own puberty. In the seventh grade, I started my first period a month after the first episode of Freaks and Geeks aired. Since it was my favorite TV show at the time, I was majorly bummed when the show was canceled after only one season. I lost a key coping source for all my pubescent confusion.
In the next few years, I read and watched other coming-of-age stories, such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, which I first caught a few scenes of as a fourteen year old in Texas on the way to a school dance (appropriate). Of course there are also male-focused coming-of-age stories: from the Telemachy in The Odyssey to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to David B.’s comic Epileptic. But this post is about the ladies.
In “No Place More Beautiful,” soon after Sophie’s shaking incident, the story then follows the other main character, Becca, one of Sophie’s best friends, two years later, at age fourteen. Both girls have older, wilder sisters. Sophie’s sister, Debbie, had been kicked out of the camp for “a compromising incident behind the woodshop . . . with a visiting tennis pro,” while Becca’s sister, Laura, is in the hospital for reasons unclear to Becca: “Laura’s an artist, a bohemian. I suspect she’s done something artistic and bohemian, like gotten herself pregnant.”
The sister theme occurs often in coming-of-age stories. The wonderful and weird Fat Girl, a film by Catherine Breillat, comes to mind. Some other favorite female-led coming-of-age stories include Charles Portis’s True Grit and Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth. Even stories with male protagonists but featuring female main characters, like Nabokov’s Lolita and Terrence Mallick’s Badlands, strike me as fitting the category.
I have two sisters coming of age: they’re twelve and fourteen. I’m twice the oldest one’s age, so I doubt I fit the wilder older sister role for them, but I try to give them advice, warnings, about navigating this awkward, confusing time in their lives. Some of it is painfully self-conscious: Watch out for guys who ignore your No’s (with companion stories like the one where a guy spiked my drink before a dance without telling me—I escaped him). Maybe I’ll just show them the haunting film The Witch next time I’m home and tell them to beware the dangers some men think female bodies invite.
Reisman’s story touches on the male gaze and forceful dudes too. “A broad man-boy in a lumber jacket appears, enormous, and drops his cap on the seat next to me . . . His body bulges over the edges of his seat, onto mine.”
They have a one-sided conversation, nosy and a bit patronizing on his part (the usual Nice-Guy™-stranger-hitting-on-you-in-a-public-place approach), and then abruptly: “His hands are sausagy and rough and after a while picks up one of my hands in his.”
Their situation escalates, even after Becca escapes her hand, the man-boy (and now I have The Vaselines’s—originally Divine’s—“You Think You’re a Man” stuck in my head) trying to pressure Becca into ditching the train and hitching a ride with him. But Becca gets away.
Becca later also experiences body and fashion consciousness: “My own clothes—blue jeans faded at the knees, cable-knit fisherman’s sweater—have turned against me. In every mirror I look lumpy and oafish.”
She feels the nagging boredom almost particular to teenagers: “I drink orange juice, wash my hair with Sophie’s strawberry shampoo, rub her vanilla lotion on my skin. I wrap myself in thick towels and walk barefoot over her bedroom carpet, calm, the day off-white and glassy, as if the light is laced with codeine.”
There’s much more to “No Place More Beautiful,” so if you’re interested, get a copy of High 5ive: An Anthology of Fiction from Ten Years of Five Points and read it.
On an ending note for coming-of-age stories, this quote from Portrait sums things up nicely:
“Where was his boyhood now! . . . He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight and gayclad lightclad figures of children and girls and voices childish and girlish in the air.”
The scene then transitions, appropriately, into the male gaze and a young woman’s “quiet sufferance” of it. I’m pleased Joyce is the one to bring this subject 360 degrees.