8 February 2013

I’m reading The Dud Avodcado by Elaine Dundy. The book is about a young woman living in Paris in the 1950s. Sally Jay Gorce was promised by her wealthy uncle that he would enable her to live where and how she wanted for two years after she graduated college. Sally has known that she would be granted this freedom since she was thirteen. After running away from home several times, Sally’s uncle requests her presence, and promises to give her freedom in hopes that it will settle her down. Contemplating what Sally Jay will make of her freedom, her uncle says,

“It is difficult to know nowadays where adventure lies. There are no more real frontiers. Funny how these things work out. I came roaring out of the Middle West, you know, and my greatest ambition was to conquer – that’s how I saw it – to conquer New York; New York and the mysterious, civilized East. Now my father before me had set his sights on conquering the Middle West. That was his adventure. I wonder what you will try to conquer? Europe, I suppose, since our family seems to be going backwards.”

Sally Jay sets out to conquer Paris. She lives amongst the café going bohemian set, but these are a different sort of bohemians than the Paris of the Lost Generation. When one of her friends brings up a painter that Sally is casually aware of, she asks, “What is he – G.I., Fulbright, Guggenheim, or Rockefeller?” The bohemians living in 1950s Paris are living on grants or stipends from wealthy relatives.

The book opens with Sally Jay meeting a childhood friend of hers. She saw him when she first moved to Paris, and this meeting is the first time she has seen him since. Her friend spends a good deal of their time together explaining the different sorts of “tourists” that have come to Paris to live as bohemians. The irony, of course, is that everyone in the book has missed the 1920s golden era of Parisian avant-garde bohemianism. After World War Two, New York City became the center of the art world. The characters in The Dud Avocado are trying to conquer frontiers that have been conquered for half a generation.

I learned of this book from the Millions which featured it in an article called “Ten Books to Read Now that HBO’s Girls is Back On”. The suggestion is apt. Just as in The Dud Avocado, the characters in Girls (and the socio-economic group being profiled in the series) yearn to live authentic lives. The problem is that living authentically can easily become a vapid goal. The 45 year old Elizabeth Wurtzel recently published a piece in New York magazine about the emptiness she feels for never having compromised on her desire to live authentically.

I wonder if there isn’t a particularly American element to this authenticity angst. As suggested in The Dud Avocado, much of this angst comes from the fact that there are no more frontiers to conquer. Nick Carraway realizes this, and returns to his Midwestern home at the end of Gatsby. This angst runs deep in the American spirit, as there never really was a frontier. It is one of our most deeply held beliefs that it is our destiny to find freedom through conquering the frontier. Though we have tried to forget that there were people on the continent of North America before us, we have never really been able to truly disregard this inconvenient truth.



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