AND NOW YOU CAN GO
By Vendela Vida
When Ellis, the heroine of And Now You Can Go, returns to her hometown for Christmas vacation, she finds that her former high school English teacher, who spent a whole semester teaching Sylvia Plath, has killed herself by sticking her head in the oven. It’s a throwaway moment, but you can’t imagine Vendela Vida leaving it out. Plath’s is a name to conjure with: the patroness of intellectual young women leading seemingly perfect lives who are really in need of therapy; the victim as role model. But while Plath was a truly tragic figure, what are we to make of today’s wannabes?
Ellis (no last name) is a grad student of Art History at Columbia. But that doesn’t make her the daughter of privilege. She’s the child of a working class home, studying on a scholarship. Her sister has a scholarship to go to Oxford. These scholarships to top schools are important. Vida doesn’t want you to think Ellis is some trust-fund kid. Rich people exploit her, like her spoiled ex-boyfriend and the wealthy yet infertile couple who buy her eggs. Ellis is just folks.
The novel begins with Ellis being accosted by a young man, a stranger to her, set on killing himself and taking her with him. He doesn’t want to die alone. She manages to put him off by reciting bits of modern poetry while they sit together on a park bench. He runs away. The moment is a turning point in Ellis’s life. Put simply: She feels cheated. This was her big chance to be a victim, a real Victim, and it didn’t happen for her. She’s poor, physically scarred, and a little chubby around the middle, but still lacks victim cred. Damn!
What’s a girl to do? She immediately ditches her good-natured boyfriend. He suggests she “get over” her problems. This drives her into a rage. Getting over being a victim is the last thing she wants to do. So instead she indulges in a lot of casual sex. This is great because she gets to be the center of attention, have some fun, and yet still be a victim of unpleasant, predatory males. Then she goes on a trip to the Philippines with her mother as part of a medical outreach program. Observing Third World misery first hand is therapy.
Ellis also enjoys playing emotional dress-up as loving and protective mother to all of her social and intellectual inferiors: her younger sister, her childish boyfriends, the “kids” (roughly the same age as herself) she teaches at a writing center, those diseased hordes in the Philippines swarming around her like a White Goddess. She just “adores” these people, and they adore her. Any unpleasantness can be overcome with a big snuggly hug and an apology. Ellis is a maternal, forgiving goddess. As a Victim Goddess she exists to forgive the world’s sins. She remembers sitting on her parents’ roof as a child forgiving the men coming home late from work – including her absentee father. She has another encounter with the man from the park (“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”), and she forgives him. One of her boyfriends appears before her as “the representative of everyone in the world who’s sorry.” But Ellis is large, she can contain these multitudes of apologies. It’s part of the victim’s role.
A glint of self-awareness would help make this all go down a little easier, but Ellis is in painful earnest. And life as a Victim Goddess is not all fun and games, like having sex with college jerks. It’s mostly blasé boredom. Ellis doesn’t even know if she wants to get a graduate degree, and plans on studying the Baroque period merely as a way to “fill the days.” Going home to San Francisco, she is so desperate for something to do she takes to following the mail carrier.
There is something infantile in all of this, as though Ellis is in a state of arrested innocence. This feeling is deepened by the anorexic narrative voice. “I may be a grad student,” it says, “but just look at how simpleminded and full of wonder I can be”:
For no reason, I smile.
I have no idea why I like this kid so much.
A narrow bench is built into the back of the elevator. I sit down as the car begins its twenty-one floor descent. One floor for every year of my life. I want to believe this has some significance, but I can’t think of what it could be.
There’s little pedestrian traffic this time of day, so I try to glimpse into people’s cars. I’m surprised by how many people are driving by themselves. I’m surprised by how many red cars there are.
I wonder what she’s dreaming. I don’t have a clue.
This all seems important, though I don’t know what difference the answers would make.
One can see how Ellis’s childlike sense of wonder walks a fine line with imbecility.
And Now You Can Go is a first novel, not a mature work. Not mature, and at times not even grown-up.
Review first published October 25, 2003.