LAST SPRING, IN just a day and a half, I blew through Making Scenes, by Adrienne Eisen, that month’s selection from the Emily Books e-book store and book club. I hadn’t expected to like it so much. I’d approached the book with equal parts curiosity and doubt, having learned that Eisen is one of many pen names for the person better known as Penelope Trunk (another pen name—she was born Adrienne Roston), the author of the popular Brazen Careerist blog and newsletter. I’d been a subscriber to the newsletter for a couple of years, but the truth is, I never actually liked it. Which is why I had my doubts about the book.
But Making Scenes is incredibly engaging. It’s the story of—well, it’s not exactly a story. It’s more like a character study in vignettes. The picture emerges of a deeply, unapologetically fucked-up woman who tries in mostly misguided ways to become less fucked up, or to at least make sense of herself. It’s the 1990s, and she’s in her twenties, figuring out what she wants to do with her life: Make a career of beach volleyball? Cock-tease men into helping her make money on the trading floor? Go back to school? She’s also trying, with an almost childlike wonder, to figure out whether she’s a lesbian. Although after just one session of fingering and being fingered by a woman, she blithely decides, “…if we’re just going to put stuff in each others’ vaginas, we should just use penises.”
I know—I’m not making it sound very good. It’s kind of hard to describe, and to perfectly understand why I liked it so much. It’s pretty much a series of scenarios in which this really damaged woman constantly fights with herself and everyone around her. A survivor of sexual and physical abuse at her father’s hand, she’s drawn toward emotionally unavailable men, and mostly short-lived relationships in which she exchanges a degree of submissiveness for financial and emotional security. The scenes with her crazy Jewish family—and especially the ones with her father alone—make you understand the roots of her shallow looks-ism and internalized misogyny, and to have sympathy for her in a way you might not have otherwise. (Especially if you are from a crazy Jewish family.)
Oh, and she spends a lot of time raising bulimia to an art form. In one bulimic episode before a beach volleyball game, she pukes up about half a dozen bagels only to reach into the toilet and “eat a handful of vomit for energy.” That line took me by surprise and made me laugh out loud.
I think what I liked about Making Scenes was that it takes this outwardly unlikable character and makes her sympathetic. There’s a vulnerability and candor to her—and that childlike wonder I mentioned earlier—which take you off guard and make you feel for her, relate to her even. She admits to so many ugly, unflattering thoughts and emotions the rest of us hide. She sizes up an ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend and feels she’s won because, she’s decided, the new girlfriend is “ugly.” She’s openly insecure, needy, calculating, opportunistic, mercenary, manipulative, competitive. And she’s wasteful; in one scene, we learn she’s binged on and then purged all the food in the apartment she shares with her boyfriend until the cupboards are bare.
The character reveals these flaws with a detachment that, when you factor in Trunk’s Asperger’s, makes so much sense. (In an interview with Emily Books co-owner Emily Gould, she admitted this “novel” is actually memoir.) It’s all sort of shocking to read, but the transgressiveness is kind of thrilling, too. Her style is appealingly spare, with a deadpan matter-of-factness that makes so much of it surprisingly funny.
I loved Making Scenes, and didn’t want it to end. When I finished reading, I got depressed thinking about how someone who could produce such an entertaining and thought-provoking narrative had to earn her living writing a business newsletter. It prompted me to look more closely at Brazen Careerist, to go back into the archive and compare the newsletters, side-by-side, with what’s in the book. When you do that, you can see that there’s a clear relationship between their authors. There’s some overlap. Which makes it curious that one can be so engaging, and the other so not, at least for me. And that the same character, in two different contexts, can seem sympathetic in one and abhorrent in the other.
Brazen Careerist is a strange animal. In it, Trunk essentially takes her life experiences and her often self-described craziness and spins them into parables and cautionary tales for other people to ostensibly use to make decisions about their own careers. The “advice” she offers is often retrograde and anti-feminist (women shouldn’t be involved in start-ups; they shouldn’t make more money than their men; whom to marry is a woman’s most important career choice) and sometimes it’s downright disturbing, not to mention counterintuitive (divorce is “immature and selfish” even when your husband is beating you).
It’s a wonder I subscribed for so long. Mostly I think it was a function of a certain degree of my own craziness—which is probably also what made Eisen’s character in the book sympathetic to me, and more identifiable than I’d like to admit.
I’d been subscribing out of a combination of obligation and superstition. “Obligation” because the person who suggested I get the newsletter is a well-meaning friend—a friend who is successful at what she does, who acts her age much more than I do, who keeps trying to nudge me in the direction of some more readily appreciable kind of success than the hand-to-mouth freelance writing life I still live at 47. “Maybe if Sari read this blog about careers, it would help her be more focused…” is the thought bubble I envision over my friend’s head.
“Superstition” because I am the lapsed daughter of a clergyman, and have a lot of baggage when it comes to religion and bafflement about How the Universe Works. And while I don’t formally practice Judaism or anything more organized than some vague karma-centric notion of Eastern philosophy mixed with the most rudimentary understanding of Astrology, plus The Secret™, I do adhere to a small but strange set of tics and other OCD behaviors loosely designed to protect me. Included in these is a mandatory at-least-perfunctory skimming of certain newsletters I subscribe to because I have the idea that they are “good for me,” including Brazen Careerist. (Okay, maybe it’s readily—painfully—apparent why I find Eisen’s/Trunk’s character so compelling.)
In the beginning of my subscription, after a few initial deep reads with little gleaned, instead of trusting my instincts and unsubscribing, I decided I wasn’t reading it right, or trying hard enough. So, irrationally, as some sort of magical deterrent to failure, I ordered myself to at least glance through each edition in search of something that applied to me.
Now and then the headlines seemed to indicate I really would find relevant information and tips. Maybe Trunk could help me stop regretting dropping out of grad school! Maybe she could help me find much-needed focus as a freelancer who juggles a variety of kinds of writing! But the newsletters never really delivered anything too practical for me; or made much sense; or held much traction for my attention span; not to mention all the retrograde anti-feminist stuff. Nonetheless, I continued to observe my skimming ritual.
I might as well confess to another Eisen-worthy reason I didn’t unsubscribe: I relied on Trunk’s odd, detached narratives about some of the aspects of her life and personality to assure me I didn’t have Asperger’s. Granted, as someone who ghostwrote a book on the subject, I might have a just a touch of Medical Student Syndrome. (At some point in my interactions with most people, I am likely to think, “Hmmm…could this person maybe…?”) But I’m kind of a loner who is strange about working with people in an office, and hanging out with friends for more than short clips of time. People in my family describe me as some sort of alien, and friends are not pleased when I don’t sugar-coat the truth. Then there are my weird food texture issues: Egg whites and bananas fall into the category of Foods I’d Maybe Consider Eating on Fear Factor for $1 Million. I eat cereal dry. I will eat oatmeal only with salt—no sugar! —and also only with a fork, for reasons of which I am entirely unaware.
Not to mention the whole matter of difficulty reading social cues, mainly just an issue for me online—and sometimes I think we’re all susceptible to some Internet-borne strain of Asperger’s, because, seriously, with all this “liking” and “favoriting” and Internet niceness, the liberal use of xo and <3 and such, who can really tell a friend from a “friend”?
Reading, though, about Trunk’s propensity for blurting things inappropriately (as in live-tweeting her miscarriage), her sensory integration dysfunction, and other pronounced symptoms, I am able to say to myself, “If that’s Asperger’s, I don’t have it.” And so I kept skimming.
Besides that, though, there wasn’t much more for me in the Brazen Careerist newsletter. After having read Making Scenes, the more closely I looked at the writing Trunk does for a living, the more I saw her trying to manipulate her own narrative into a prescription for other people to use, god knows how, to make money. Put more bluntly, in her newsletter, it’s as if she’s trying to sell the flawed thinking and lack of agency that make her character in the “novel” so sympathetic. You root for the “fictional” character to prevail in her (mostly misdirected) quest for power. Not so, the real-life career guru, who implies that women can only attain power by indirect means.
A few weeks after finishing the book, I finally granted myself permission to unsubscribe. The last straw was the edition of the newsletter in which Trunk described as “phenomenal” Katie Roiphe’s specious argument that the more power “career women” command in the workplace, the more they want to be dominated sexually.
I wish there were a way to get Trunk to instead write another “novel” or two. I don’t want to put anybody out of business or anything, but maybe if we all unsubscribed, she’d have to?