Chick Lit Goes To War

If the year's most insane literary experiment fails, have the terrorists won?


Here's my newest million-dollar idea: an Abu Ghreib-based remake of I Was A Male War Bride. Think about it: The 1949 Howard Hawks classic—in which wackiness doesn't merely ensue but conquers all as WAAC officer Ann Sheridan bullies, teases, humiliates, bosses, and eventually falls for a hapless Frenchman played by the always game Cary Grant—provides the perfect template for combining romantic comedy, gross-out yucks, a combustible battle of the sexes, and a witty exploration of East/West differences in a movie that would have Oscar® himself saying Yes to the U.S.A. Instead of the dowdily appealing Sheridan, we have one of our spunky young beauties (Katie Holmes, maybe) playing a Lynndiesque Reservist assigned to the infamous prison; the "meet cute" occurs as she literally leads the leading man (Rupert Everett, in Sudden Tan?) around the jailhouse on a leash. The rest writes itself. Instead of the original's running gag about "public law 271 of the Congress," our Green Card romance hinges on some made-up Defense Department order allowing indefinite detention of hunky but suspicious characters. There's a trailer-ready sight gag in the scene where the newly sprung hero visits a Baghdad unemployment office crowded with former Saddam look-alikes. Tony Shalhoub can jump in as a queeny fellow prisoner who teaches the leading man how to femme it up for the inevitable drag scene.

I say it's a guaranteed hit. But I won't even bother pitching it.

I'm not worried that Abu Ghreib is too sore a spot for American audiences, who have bravely managed to put that scandal largely behind them. Nor am I discouraged by the poor box office performance of the eagerly anticipated Team America: World Police (a brilliant and ballsy box office gamble, but always a gamble). No, what convinced me this idea's going nowhere was the withering popular and critical reception of Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination. I figure if even Helen Fielding can't get popular entertainment out of the war on terrorism, I shouldn't even bother trying.

If you blinked this summer, you probably missed this book, an effort by the author of the genre-creating Bridget Jones novels to branch out into the field of international spy thrillers. Putting a feminist, and post-9/11 anti-terrorist, spin on such a well-trafficked fictional sphere might seem like a canny move for a successful writer, but critics denounced the book and readers largely ignored it. It's tempting to claim this shows the dilemma of the fiction writer in our catastrophic age, but a world where Dan Brown is still walking around free is hardly a tough place for writers of popular literature. It might be more accurate to say the book's negative reaction shines a light on how people choose to compartmentalize entertainment and contemporary history.

Though I enjoyed it, I can make no great literary claims for Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination. I can't even make the mildly blurbable claim that Fans of Bridget Jones Will Love It! because the fans seem to have been particularly dismayed by the book. "I am a huge Bridget Jones fan," writes literarygoddess in a characteristic Amazon review. "Sadly, I really felt this novel was just a hollow echo of Fielding's previous offerings…I personally did not enjoy the terrorism plot, which seemed tawdry and like a poor attempt to cash in on an ever-present global threat." In a writeup for the Baltimore Sun, Clare McHugh dispatches Olivia Joules without remorse: "No cream teas in sight, and the book flopped. Maybe Fielding should return to her roots. Lord knows…there's an audience out there."

McHugh's dismissal is accurate as far as it goes, but it treats Fielding merely as a writer of novels, ignoring her considerable success as a postmodern impresario and multimedia trickster. It also misses the truth of where the writers' "roots" lie. Fielding's first literary effort was the 1994 novel Cause Celeb, an excellent book with a terrible title. The narrator/heroine, an entry-level media cutey with the Stan Lee-worthy name "Rosie Richardson," travels in the upper echelons of the London celebrity culture while suffering through an ill-conceived romance with a charming cad. Wounded by the end of her relationship, Rosie embarks on a new career as an aid worker in a fictional war-torn country in East Africa. After a few years, she has emerged as a competent camp leader, but gets wind that a locust infestation is on the verge of causing a new famine and refugee crisis. Unable to rouse the NGO bureaucracies or the feckless United Nations, Rosie heads back to London to try and solve the problem with a Geldofian celebrity benefit, leaning on her old contacts among the glitterati.

Though an alert reader will spot much of the plot coming from miles away (and though this reader can never hear about nations like "Nambula" and "Kefti" without shouting "Hey, those aren't real countries!"), the book boasts remarkable minor characters drawn from its two universes (including a kindly doctor dismayed by the medical horrors caused by Shariah-mandated punishments, who hires himself out performing sanitary amputations for the local government, and an actress with the hilarious name "Vickie Spanky" who shows her devotion to the cause of the rain forests by marrying an Indian from the Amazon). Cause Celeb also contains all the elements Fielding later spun into phenomenal success: the alert and media-saturated single woman, the rogue she falls for, a beautiful and treacherous rival, and the slightly dull standup guy who turns out to be Mr. Right. But what is most striking is its sharp satirical take on philosophical concerns: the sanctimoniousness of well-heeled do-gooders; the difficulty of being a good liberal and member of the technocratic overclass when much of the world's population lives in politically-sanctioned misery; the moral ambiguity of using star power to keep Africans fed; the essential absurdity of the celebrity culture.

Dispensing with that sturm und drang was one of several fiscally wise moves Fielding made in Bridget Jones's Diary. She also (keying off the work's original format as a newspaper column) hit on the diary form as a punchy, versatile style. (Several of the book's phrases—"Singletons," "Smug Marrieds," "VG," etc.—are now firmly placed in the popular lexicon.) And she learned to channel Jane Austen, specifically the BBC/A&E miniseries version of Pride and Prejudice—an improbable but real touchstone for women everywhere. Bridget Jones takes place in an Austenian universe of comfortable insularity (the book's subplot involving an important trial is a transparent McGuffin designed to get Bridget together with the book's Mr. Darcy figure, imaginatively named "Mark Darcy"), with sharp social satire enlivening a Cinderella narrative wherein a Plain Jane lands a wealthy hunk.

To say that women ate this stuff up is merely to restate a truism. The real mark of Fielding's success is that she's been ripped off more times than the Pony Express. Go to any bookstore these days and you'll find the shelves groaning with tales of single girls toiling in the mediaverse and looking for love in London, New York, Los Angeles or some other metropolis (never Green Bay, though; why not Green Bay?). But while Bridget Jones has become a superstar of page and screen, Fielding herself, on this side of the Atlantic at any rate, is something of a Moriarty figure, notable mainly by her absence. In a recent episode of Oprah promoting the movie adaptation of the sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the film's stars were all featured, as were several single women describing themselves as the "real-life Bridget Jones," but the book was mentioned just once and the author not at all.

Meanwhile, Fielding's fictional narrative spun through ever more Escheresque cycles of self-reference and paradox. Having based her Mark Darcy character on the actor Colin Firth's portrayal of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, she then executive-produced a movie adaptation in which the same actor plays Mark Darcy. In the sequel (book version), the Mark Darcy character has suddenly developed an off-putting obsession with professional soccer—a trait copped from the part Firth played in another movie, the adaptation of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch. Like a true criminal genius, Fielding delights in teasing the authorities with hints about her capers: The funniest bit in Edge of Reason is a Chris Farleyesque interview Bridget conducts with the actual Colin Firth during the promotional tour for Fever Pitch. I don't know if this scene is included in the new movie version, but I hope it is: By my count, this would put the multimedia circularity into at least its fifth generation, a feat Borges himself would have been hard-pressed to match.

Though it's been widely described as a departure, Olivia Joules actually continues Fielding's demolition of the Fourth Wall, about which more in a moment. Written in a breezy third-person-limited-omniscient—the Cadillac of narrative voices—the book transposes the main Fielding characters (heroine, cad, rival, and Mr. Right) into a globetrotting espionage adventure. (The fifth business this time around is an elderly spymaster, an amalgam of George Smiley, Bernard Lewis, Raphael Patai, and Yoda.) The titular heroine, a reporter busted from the international desk to the fashion beat because of her propensity to tell and believe tall tales, falls in with "Pierre Feramo," an attractive international playboy and dubious film producer with an entourage of movie wannabes, and she suspects him of being a Takfir wa'l-Hijra-type terrorist. At first this hunch is based only on his physical resemblance to Osama bin Laden—"aristocratic" and "languid" bearing, "finely drawn features, a straight nose, fine, arched brows, hooded brown eyes," a "compelling mixture of soulful and powerful." But a trek through tony spots in Miami, Los Angeles, Honduras and Sudan, along with a series of gruesome terror attacks, adds weight to her suspicions, and without giving anything away, I'll note that this is an action thriller.

The flirtation with a terrorist, not to mention the idea of a bin Laden type as a sexually attractive figure, is of course in questionable taste. Unfortunately, Fielding seems too aware of this. The relationship between Olivia and Feramo is the most interesting thing in the book, and its most ingenious passage—a romantic dinner in which he may or may not be trying to slip her a mickey—combines a bodice-ripper courtship complete with purple prose, a British comedy of manners, verbal sparring about the clash of civilizations and the decadence of the west, spy-vs-spy gamesmanship, and fumbling chick-lit slapstick. This stuff might have led somewhere truly dangerous, but Fielding prudently cuts back to the more pedestrian thrills of the spy genre in quick order.

Not quick enough for her fans, however, who have lambasted the book for, alternately, its bigotry against Arabs (a fault I only noted once, when Olivia finds a nose-hair trimmer in Feramo's travel bag), and the "ridiculous," "inappropriate" use of the terrorist plot. As always, Amazon customer reviews tell the tale: A. Hicks "Sad reviewer" notes "how terrifically inappropriate Fielding's allusions to 9/11 and al-qaeda (sic) seem amidst what is apparently trying to be a fluffy beach read." In the view of Chastity Wilde-Bush, "It was tasteless, to say the very least, of her to exploit 9/11 for the purposes of selling a rather badly written comedy." Olivia Joules "turned me off right away with some reference to a dangerous terrorist being attractive or exciting," says Molly Fleming (avid reader); "I was thinking, maybe this is a British thing I just don't get?" "Chic-Lit to Chic-Pits," says another reader. "While in concept the plot may have been a winner it quickly falls apart with far too many refrences (sic) to the Bin Laden family."

Professional reviewers have been no kinder."[H]er willful cluelessness is inappropriate at best and offensive at worst," sniffs Stephanie Zacharek in Newsday. "[M]ay be the worst novel of the year," Entertainment Weekly raves. Even Michiko Kakutani, as steely a book critic as they come, condemns Fielding for bringing a real world threat to a beach read. "What Ms. Fielding seems to have forgotten is that Bond movies and spoofs of Bond movies," writes Kakutani, "never make the fatal mistake of pitting their heroes against someone who could be mistaken for Mr. bin Laden or a member of something as real and deadly as Al Qaeda." Since its U.S. release in June, Olivia Joules has failed to crack the Publishers Weekly top 10 list (even as Jones Clones like Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic and Sister and Plum Sykes' Bergdorf Blondes have nested comfortably at the top). We may hope that patriotic Britons would do better by their hometown author, but even in the UK you can pick up a remaindered copy for less than a pound.

I don't ignore the possibility that readers are merely responding to a literary failure. By employing a Walter Mitty storyline—a masterplot that should never be used by anybody anywhere under any circumstances—Fielding signals that she isn't fully at home in the genre. That choice may save the book from the dull, lonesome boredom, the hard physical training, and the piss-testing that constitute actual defense intelligence work, but why not really probe some new territory for Chick Lit? I'm sure British intelligence employs a few single women who would be happy to share nonclassified bits of verisimilitude with one of the most popular writers of the last decade. And though I never had the impression that Helen Fielding spent too many hours of Flaubertian torment polishing her prose, Olivia Joules features some slipshod dialogue (Americans who offer to "ring" people and refer to "apartment blocks," an Irish gummy granny who asks "What can I be doing for you then?" Val-speak that goes no shallower than "like" and "you know," and quotes from various Third World types too embarrassing to repeat in a family publication), and some narration that sounds like copy from the Archie McPhee Catalogue ("She had twenty minutes to transform herself into a dazzling creature of the night.") But the gravest error is one common to successful writers who decide to dabble in a new genre—ignorance of or indifference to the forms, customs, and history of the genre itself. Though she appears well-versed in current terrorism news and the basics of Fox's 24, Fielding doesn't seem to have read much of her chosen genre, which includes not only the Fleming/Le Carre/Greene classics but the newer model of Tom Clancy-style technothriller.

Then again, mighty Clancy himself was caught pretty much flat-footed by September 11. If Fielding is insufficiently interested in the sterile business of force and destruction, Clancy is inspired by little else: In Clancy's "Jack Ryan" universe, the United States has already been devastated by nuclear terrorism, an Ebola attack, a 9/11-type attack on the White House, and other horrors. Clancy's apocalyptic, great-powers sensibility is wildly out of tune in the fight against a cave-dwelling, omnicidal media whore and his legion of admirers. If you really want to see fans tearing into a former favorite, dig the customer comments on Teeth of the Tiger, Clancy's first post-9/11 effort.

One of the more insidious effects of 9/11 was the way it made everything else seem slightly shameful and ridiculous. This was especially apparent in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, when Irony lay dying and The Onion sagely announced: "A Shattered Nation Longs To Care About Stupid Shit Again." Clearly the nation has by now renewed its love of Stupid Shit (while stubbornly resisting my colleague Chuck Freund's thesis that Stupid Shit is America's most devastating weapon) but in a self-conscious, bipolar manner. The hemisphere of policy is a place of relentless tragedy; the hemisphere of culture and communication stays sane by walling off the other hemisphere.

All this makes Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination a fascinating experiment. It takes a genre defined wholly by its starstruck, media-engorged frothiness and applies it to the most dreadful and serious (though also media-engorged) business of our time. Not all the book's articulations work, but enough of them do, and the attempt itself is so audacious, that I think the critics are not only wrong but clueless. Michiko Kakutani uses a weasel construction by only referring to the Bond movies, but even so she's peddling straight-up bullshit: James Bond's SMERSH opponents were clearly defined Soviets, servants of an enemy whose chief products were heavy industrial planning, falsified crop reports, and mass murder. That didn't prevent Bond from traveling to every exotic spot in the world to dispatch them in ever more ridiculous ways. If the deadly seriousness of Tojo had stopped Abbot and Costello from joining the army, we'd probably still be fighting on Guadalcanal right now. I too questioned the appropriateness of having Olivia Joules escape from a situation that in the real world would have ended with her being beheaded after delivering a tearful, videotaped plea for her life; but I was glad (though unsurprised) that she got away.

This being Fielding the postmodern genius, in fact, the real world does intrude in its way. If I haven't already whetted your appetite, let me just note that the book's beautiful and absurd climax involves a terrorist plot on a little gold man by the name of Oscar® and offers ironic cameos for Brad Pitt, Tim Burton, and a fat producer whom Fielding, for reasons of her own, declines to identify as Harvey Weinstein. Clearly, this is the year for blowing up celebrities. (Movie adapters be advised, though. Much of the book's action takes place during tropical ocean dives, and as A.S. Hamrah warned, there is no acting underwater.)

Along the way, there's a riff on CNN's riddle-me-ree phraseology and its equal applicability to horror and banality: "He's tall, he's bad and he hid in a hole—Saddam Hussein! It's Wet, it's see-through, but without it we'd die: waterrrrr! They're small, they're green, they're widely available, but they're about to poison the world: castor beans!" And (Olivia being a good liberal) this shrewd description of President Bush addressing the nation: "He paused with that odd look in his eye, which struck Olivia as that of a nervous stand-up pausing for a laugh."

So I say, soldier on, Helen Fielding, fix the handful of technical problems that prevented readers from appreciating your new series, and get cracking on the sequel. I suspect that you won't, that you will rack up your spy thriller as a lone miscarriage, maybe even a learning experience. But in some alternate universe, Overactive Imagination is just the caesarian birth of a popular series, and just as Jack Kennedy once based an entire presidency on the works of Ian Fleming, President Clinton will one day make Olivia Joules the model for her own hard-nosed White House.