Author Archives: Jen Vafidis

Reviewed: “Vicky Swanky is a Beauty” by Diane Williams

Review by Jen Vafdis

Vicky Swanky is a Beauty
by Diane Williams
McSweeney’s; 124 p.

I’m about to invent a person who, while hypothetical, is not impossible: a person who has not read Diane Williams and may be put off reading Diane Williams by the following equivocations I’m about to make. This person is the kind of person who reads the following equivocations and thinks, This is not the book for me. A straw man, you say! Okay sure, but that straw man actually has flesh and blood sometimes. I am sometimes that straw man. The response of This is not the book for me is one I totally respect. However, having these equivocations does, from time to time, exhaust me, as charges against anything experimental or goofy or whimsical or uncanny can make the charger feel like she’s just no fun at all.

Diane Williams’ latest book, Vicky Swanky is a Beauty, includes an epigraph, and that epigraph is a quote from the same Diane Williams who authored the book. The epigraph is formatted much like a quote from, say, Nabokov at the beginning of a new novel about butterflies. This is audacious, ballsy, perhaps other words too. Take a deep breath.

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On “teachable” moments and unreliable narrators

Posted by Jen Vafidis

At the beginning of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, a teenage boy asks a teenage girl to go to the movies. Not wanting it to turn into a date, she makes him supremely uncomfortable, in that flirty way that destroys young people who are trying to be straight-forward. A few scenes later, the teenage girl is on the phone with another teenage girl and pithily relates this new development in her friendship with the boy. “What’s that about?” the friend laughs. “I have no idea,” the girl replies with hurtful quickness. Even though I’ve been everyone in that situation before, I’d like to say smugly: I would be nicer now that I’m older. I would be more aware of what I was doing than she is, because I’ve been the boy in that situation too. But the teenage girl isn’t unaware of the whole situation. It’s just that she thinks she’s right when I think she’s wrong. And it’s fascinating to watch. Continue reading

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Reviewed: Green Girl by Kate Zambreno

Reviewed by Jen Vafidis

Green Girl by Kate Zambreno

Emergency Press, 268 P.

You know that Rolling Stones song, “Cool, Calm, Collected”? It’s one of many vaguely misogynistic songs in the Stones back catalog, and it features the following lyrics: In public the strain’s hard to bear / She exudes such a confident air / But behind she is not without care / She sweeps it right under her hair. That’s basically Green Girl if Kate Zambreno didn’t have the patience and talent to think through how She feels. That being said, I like that Rolling Stones song, even if Mick’s delivery stings, and I’m not sure if it’s necessary to look at the world through Her eyes. It might be a useless experiment, which is neither good nor bad; it’s something amorphous, the experience of which I haven’t figured out yet. Here’s another way to look at it. Robert Christgau once said, “Nico is what happens when the bloodless wager their minds on the wisdom of the blood and the suicidal make something of their lives.” Green Girl is what happens when the blood wagers her mind on the wisdom of the bloodless and turns her life to making something out of suicide. And I think I want the blood, in other words. Give me the blood! Continue reading


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Reviewed: Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines A Life by Ann Beattie

Reviewed by Jen Vafidis

Mrs. Nixon

By Ann Beattie

Scribner, 304 p.


Ann Beattie’s latest novel Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines A Life is not a biography, despite the helpful chronology of Patricia Nixon’s life in the back of the book. It’s not a novel either. There’s no plot beyond what is proposed in the subtitle. And it’s not a memoir; Beattie’s one encounter with Mrs. Nixon is entirely fictional. So what can we look forward to in the latest Ann Beattie? I think I was hoping for well-observed and professionalized fan fiction about the wife of the GOP’s biggest pre-00s disgrace. But this is not that kind of book, at least not totally. Beattie also pontificates at length about fiction in short story analyses designed to parallel the art of constructing a political and personal image. It’s hard, in other words, to read Mrs. Nixon with expectations of any kind, and it’s a hard book to like if a look inside Ann Beattie’s mind is not the only thing you want from the premise. The subtitle gets it exactly right: this is a book about Ann Beattie, not Pat Nixon. The book is meaty enough to warrant discussion, albeit a frustrated one on my part. Moments of real humor and warmth exist, but they’re overshadowed by a Boomer-specific insularity, thrown into view by the obsession with the era and its political bogeymen, that threatens the professed goal of imagining another person’s life. The experiment from the outset seems doomed. Continue reading

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Why do I fantasize about Joan Didion?

Image via NY Magazine

By Jen Vafidis

Often in Blue Nights Joan Didion talks of treating her daughter like a doll, like the perfect child. Ultimately this is how I treat Joan herself in my mind. She needs to be perfect. She needs to be Joan Didion, Proper Noun. As far as I’ve read, no one ever writes “Didion-esque” because the thought is ludicrous; the whole point of her celebrity is that there can only be one of her, one against the rest, even when she was in a partnership. And when she dies — have you thought about how you’ll feel when Joan Didion dies? Have you taken a moment to think about how impossible it will be to avoid chatter name-checking the same essays? How often will you be reminded of her aloof response to a reader’s criticism of her piece on Woody Allen’s Manhattan? Or the beginning of “Goodbye to All That”? Or that banal truth,Life changes in an instant? Will it be like when the mourning of Norman Mailer’s passing coincided with the mourning of his symbolism, of a world that allowed young men like Norman to be who he ultimately became? When we read Joan Didion, are we hoping to resurrect a different world, one for women like her? Are we already mourning her? Continue reading


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