If you want to understand the confusing power that is female sexuality and beauty read Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter. The books is a grimy hard ride through trailer park poverty. This is the kind of novel that makes you want a shower in the best possible way. It holds a mirror up to the kind of girl that we rarely acknowledge exists. Baby Girl and Perry, the main characters are cold and cruel, growing up in a hopeless place. They are keenly aware of the fact that there’s no escape from the monotony and utter boredom of their lives and for the reader there is no escape from this narrative.
Perry, the pretty one, clings to the only control she has in life, her ability to manipulate men based on her looks. Those who study feminist theory will recognize quickly how female sexuality is both a means of power and punishment in this novel. Perry may get what she wants but she also pays a steep price for that power. The acknowledgement of what it’s like to be constantly on guard against advances and also constantly wanting is something we need more of because it’s a fucked up way to live.
Baby Girl finds power in her appearance too but at the opposite end of the spectrum. She makes herself as revolting looking as possible. She’s well aware of her lack of sexual appeal so she uses her offsetting appearance as an armor. It’s a kick them before they kick you attitude that we rarely see described this way in women. Even the mean girl shows a soft side to someone, there’s usually someone that loves her, from a distance and maybe not the person she wants. But there is no one to be tender to Baby Girl, we see her take emotional punches and watch her swing back. She’s a girl who wants to be ugly. She knows the world doesn’t want to look at her so she forces them to. If gender is performance than Baby Girl performs her gender the way capoeira performs dance, it sashays up and kicks you right in the teeth.
I love these girls because they are so real that even their attractive qualities are sickening. There are no truly good characters in this book. Even hard working prison guard Jim, step-father to Perry, who lives his life like a stone worn down by the river. Everything slides by him but every once and a while something comes down the stream and shatters against him, like the prisoner that tries to warn him of what’s coming only to nearly lose an eye for his troubles. Jim’s occupation seems almost symbolic, he is technically in law enforcement but he can not prevent anything all he does is deal with the damage and there is so much damage.
Myra, Perry’s mother is easy to dislike. An utterly unapologetic alcoholic and a terrible mother. She is the embodiment of apathy. She’s literally the trailer trash version of one of a John Cheever character. Her beauty has faded and her best days are long in her past. She allows her daughter to run wild because in her heart she knows Perry’s day’s of value and power are sorely limited. She wants Perry to fill her mind with memories before she too is trapped behind the closed trailer doors of caring for other people. These are people resigned and resentful of the cages they’re in.
So much of this book is about how we value women in society. We hear over and over from one character after another that the value of women is tied to her youth and her looks. The only characters, Baby Girl and Travis, Perry’s love interest, who tries to fight this system the only way she knows how is punished for it severely. This belief is part of what keeps even the male the characters rooted in their lives. Myra may have lost her power but so has Jim because he has tied himself to a women whose only admirable quality is she’s still kind of attractive. As soon as characters begin to have feelings that go further than enjoying each other physically, Perry for Travis, they unknowingly destroy them. Perry’s interactions with men have become so skewed by societies sexualization of her that when Travis offers her emotional love she reacts by literally raping him. She can not fathom a world where is is more than a body for men and for the first time she wants what is normally acted upon her. She wants to sleep with Travis. When he avoids her physical advances and offers her something more she takes the only comfort she can understand from him. It’s a horrible scene for everyone involved. If you want to explain how the patriarchy hurts everyone just keep turning the page because Hunter writes it into every sentence.
Running through out the story is dread. From the opening chapter the feeling that like the girls speeding down the highway in a stolen car we as the reader are speeding towards a bad end. It becomes quickly apparent that Jamey’s stalking of Perry is a problem that would easily be solved if any of these characters could have an honest discussion with anyone about anything. Their lack of communication and self imposed isolation even when they are together is what allows Jamey to get so close. The powerlessness the reader feels about Jamey’s cat and mouse game is symbolic of how the characters feel about their lives. One bad thing after another with nothing good on the horizon. The implementation of Chekhov’s gun is powerful because Hunter manages to trick the reader into thinking they know whats’ coming.
Hunter got her start in flash fiction and it shows. The book is hacked up into small snippets from rotating points of view. The sections are short but words are not wasted. Ugly Girls is her first full length novel following several short story collections. If this is what she can produce in a mere 246 pages then all I can say is give me more.