Friday, October 14, 2011

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

In my recent post about Northanger Abbey, I cited several discussions of art by and about women as examples of the way that femininity can be a double-edged sword for female artists and women in general.  One of them was this article from The Millions by Gabriel Brownstein, wondering why Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, a novel about America in the present moment, was getting so much attention and hype, while Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector, a novel about America in the recent past, had received so little.  Was it because of Goodman's gender, of the novel's girly title, and its central focus on two sisters, Brownstein wondered?  I haven't read Freedom so I can't say whether, like Brownstein, I think it and The Cookbook Collector are in the same league in terms of quality and relevance (though as Goodman is one of my favorite authors of literary fiction, and I found Franzen's The Corrections utterly forgettable, I'm perfectly willing to believe that The Cookbook Collector is not only as good as Freedom, but better).  But while I was reading The Cookbook Collector, I found myself comparing it to another extraordinarily well-received work of fiction by a man, and wondering why Goodman's novel--which is more thoughtful, more insightful, and most importantly, much more generous towards its female characters, than this work--hadn't received the same accolades.  That work isn't Freedom, or any other novel, but The Social Network.

Several of The Cookbook Collector's reviews have described it as a loose retelling of Sense and Sensibility.  You can sort of see where they're coming from--be they cancer research labs or orthodox Jewish communities in the mid-70s, the keen attention to detail and calm detachment with which Goodman sketches in her milieus has that "little bit of ivory" whiff to it that makes calling her a modern-day Austen almost irresistible, and with The Cookbook Collector's central characters being a pair of sisters, level-headed businesswoman Emily and emotional philosophy grad student Jess, the comparison seems obvious.  It's best, however, to approach the novel without those expectations, not only because they have the effect of making its early chapters seem rather schematic--look, there's Edward!  And there's Colonel Brandon!--but because the scheme doesn't hold.  The differences between the two sisters' personalities mirror Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood's, but nothing else about their experiences or the people they encounter matches those in Sense and Sensibility--Jess doesn't really have a Willoughby, and Emily's love interest is a great deal less stalwart than Edward.  More importantly, unlike Austen, Goodman writes about men, and she writes about work, and both of these subjects are too present in The Cookbook Collector for the Austen comparison to be very profitable.

Work, for Emily, means being the CEO of Veritech, an internet start-up on the verge of its IPO.  The novel starts in late 1999, and when Veritech goes public shortly into it Emily becomes, on paper, a multimillionaire.  Her boyfriend Jonathan is hoping for the same good luck with his company, ISIS, though the speed at which the company is growing and the exuberance with which investors are throwing money at it alarms his co-founder Orion and the company's HR director, the middle-aged Mel.  This, obviously, is where the Social Network comparison comes in, but whereas my main complaint about that movie was that Aaron Sorkin's script demonstrated not just ignorance but disdain for the technology industry, and constantly stood outside the revolution it claimed to chart without trying to understand it, The Cookbook Collector paints a multifaceted, surprisingly generous portrait.  It would be fairly easy, after all, for a novel set on the very cusp of the dot com bubble's explosion to take a sneering, finger-wagging attitude towards what was, after all, a culture of excess and irresponsibility, but though there is some of this in The Cookbook Collector, it also depicts the characters' genuine love for their field, and their determination to create something real and lasting.

"How is it majoring in an auxiliary field?"  Orion is asked when he first meets his girlfriend's father, an eminent physicist.  Eight years later, with ISIS about to go public, the tone of the conversation is very different, but for Orion, Emily and Jonathan, the answer has nothing to do with money.  "This is a time in industry where theory and practice are coming together in amazing ways."  Emily tells an interviewer who asks about her lapsed academic career.  "Yes, there's money, but what really interests me is that private-sector innovation happens faster.  You can get more done and on a larger scale and have more impact."  This is not to say that The Cookbook Collector is entirely sentimental about the tech boom.  Jonathan agrees with Emily entirely--in fact it's that interview that first attracts him to her--but he also has a ruthless streak, a businessman's mind that sees opportunities, advantages, and most of all rivalries and how to win them.  He spends the novel struggling with the temptation to steal a Veritech idea that Emily, in a sort of test of both of their affections, has revealed to him, and eventually surrendering to that temptation.  This ruthlessness concerns Orion, who loves programming but doesn't have the commitment and drive of his fellow founders.  Jonathan wants to rush products to market, to cement ISIS's hold on the field, while Orion would like to perfect them, weeding out every bug and security hole; the novel shows us the flaws in both of these approaches. 

Most of all, however, The Cookbook Collector is concerned with the inherent paradox of the internet start-up--all that money and enthusiasm poured into something that is not only ephemeral by its nature, but doesn't even work yet--and with the characters' attempts to conquer it.  When ISIS's share price drops precipitously as the bubble starts to burst, Jonathan tries to rally the troops: "You guys are not geeks for hire. ... You didn't come looking for a quick buck.  You came to build something.  You came to change the way the world does business."  Another important question, however, is just what those changes are, what it is that's being built: the idea Emily reveals to Jonathan is a system of electronic surveillance that, she's decided, is too ethically dodgy for Veritech to pursue.  The Social Network took the attitude that its central characters were being rewarded for doing nothing, and that their willingness to accept that reward (and pursue it through legal means when it was denied them) indicated a flaw in their character.  The Cookbook Collector, for all that it acknowledges this flaw, and the many other flaws in the field that led to the dot com bust, also sees how important the technology field is, and how determined the people who work within it are to make something new.

(Another point on which The Social Network received a fair bit of criticism was its depiction of women.  There are no female programmers in the film; women are either unattainable objects of affection, shallow floozies who flock to Facebook after the company takes off (and who go crazy when dumped), or maternal lawyers who don't quite get what all the fuss over a social networking site is about.  The hi tech world of The Cookbook Collector is not quite as male dominated as the film's, but it's significant that the two women we meet within it--Emily and an ISIS programmer named Sorel with whom Orion falls in love--are depicted, despite their tech-savvy and business acumen, as unsuited to the industry's cutthroat mindset.  Sorel treats ISIS as a day job, a way of funding her physics studies and musical career.  Emily, meanwhile, has the same desire as Jonathan to build something and change the world, but lacks his ruthless, competitive streak, and the corporate culture she creates at Veritech is friendly and curteous to ISIS's macho belligerence.  This is, obviously, a more varied portrait than The Social Network's, but I'm not sure that it doesn't cater to the same stereotypes.)

You might be wondering how cookbooks come into all of this, and that's because I haven't mentioned the book's second focal point--alongside the impulse to create something new, its characters are concerned with preserving what is.  Jess works in a rare book store belonging to George, a Microsoft retiree who is growing increasingly misanthropic and reactionary with middle age.  Despite his roots in the tech industry, George is dubious about technology, and increasingly reverent towards the old books he collects.  The novel's title comes from a collection he pursues and finally purchases, of dozens of 18th and 19th century cookbooks.  Jess, meanwhile, is engaged in her own brand of preservation, becoming involved with an environmentalist group (and with its creepy leader Leon) who are trying to save millennia-old California redwoods from being felled by loggers.  Jess and George start out unsympathetic to each other's interests and opinions--George in particular manages to belittle everything about Jess from her environmentalism to her vegan diet, though at times this seems like Goodman setting up rather easy targets--but gain an appreciation for them, and for each other.  Their plotline eventually transforms into a very sweet love story, not least because being with one another has the effect of mellowing most of George and Jess's annoying qualities.  That said, I have to admit--a little shamefully, given the discussion of domestic fiction by women with which I opened this review--that I find this aspect of the novel a lot less interesting than the hi tech strand.  The contrast between preserving the old and creating the new is an instructive one, but Goodman delves into Jess and George's stories--for example, with Jess's research into the identity of the titular collector, and that of the women whose drawings he tucked into his books--to such a degree that she clearly views them as significant in their own right, and yet that significance didn't register with me.

A few weeks ago, Niall Harrison and I discussed the term historical fiction, and specifically where the line between contemporary events and historical ones lies.  I suggested that an event may be called historical when its effects and consequences have been fully digested and comprehended.  9/11, in this scheme, is not historical, but the 90s--that sealed capsule of a decade, after the Cold War, before the War on Terror--are.  (You can read Niall's thoughts on this here, and Martin Lewis weighs in here and here.)  The Cookbook Collector feels like a novel about the moment at which that historical decade became the now.  The novel is littered with images of falling--Jess, though terrified of heights, agrees to squat in one of the endangered redwoods, but when she gets to the top she can't stop thinking about the fall to the ground; later, she and Richard describe falling in love with one another as an endless, dizzying drop; the fall of the tech sector's stock prices is described as a swoon:
Like a beautiful diver, the Nasdaq bounced three times into the air and flipped, somersaulting on the way down.  Tech stocks once priced at two hundred, and then seventy-three, and then twenty-one, now sold for less than two dollars a share.  Companies valued in the billions were worth jut millions, and with a blood rush, investors thought, So this is gravity, this is free fall.
All of this is leading up to that other fall, that other collapse of seemingly solid, immovable objects which the novel describes only obliquely.  After it, the tech sector changes: "Vaporizing into usefulness, online shopping, e-mail, and instant news, the Internet lost its mystique"; "The new reality was clear-eyed.  Start-ups scaled back on spending, hiring, and hype. ... Such were the lessons of learned from the prior generation, those high fliers from two years before: Reap what you sow, and look before you reap."  At ISIS, Jonathan's stolen surveillance idea is deemed a perfect technology for this new age (prompting one of the novel's few missteps as Orion, who was on-board with selling the technology to private companies balks at selling it to the government; in 2011, with corporate violations of our privacy as ubiquitous and worrying as ones by the government, this seems like a quaint, irrational distinction).  Goodman ties the two changes together in a way that's rarely been discussed in popular fiction, and in so doing manages to find something new to say about both.

The Cookbook Collector is not my favorite of Goodman's novels.  That remains Intuition, a more cohesive, more engaging work with fewer subplots and and less of a tendency to diffuse into them (it also does a better work servicing all of its characters; if The Cookbook Collector has a glaring flaw it is that Emily is a far less developed character than Jess, and that her growth at the end of the novel, after experiencing several emotional blows, is rushed through off-page).  On the other hand, it's an Allegra Goodman novel, which means beautifully written, furiously, and yet not ostentatiously, smart, and thought-provoking.  And perhaps most importantly, it's a novel about technology, and about the present moment, that is still girly and concerned with traditionally feminine things like cooking and cookbooks and romance.  That's an impressive accomplishment and one worth celebrating--especially in the face of the kind of praise lavished on less deserving works like The Social Network.

3 comments:

Jack Rodgers said...

I usually find your reviews well-written and intelligent, but I still think you’re oversimplifying The Social Network and its depiction of women.

Erica isn’t an unattainable object of desire – Mark is actually dating her at the beginning of the film. When she rejects his attempts at reconciliation later on, it’s not because she feels superior to him; it’s because she’s still hurt by what he wrote about her online. We don’t spend enough time with Erica for me to make the claim that she’s a well-developed character or anything, but the brief glimpses we have depict her as a fairly normal, likable human being. (I remember reading an article on Salon by Tracy Clark Flory, who stated that the movie sees her as a heartless bitch. I have to admit that reaction baffled me – who watches that opening scene and sympathizes with Mark by the end of it?)

Also, I don’t know that the movie or Mark Zuckerberg sees his lawyer Marylin as maternal – he hits on her and offers to buy her lunch during one of their sessions alone together. Sure, she politely advises him how to handle his lawsuits and does her best to reassure him that he’s a decent person, but c’mon – she’s his lawyer! Nothing about her behavior specifically strikes me as motherly, and her revelation that the lawsuit will eventually turn into a popularity contest that Mark, by his nature, is destined to lose, is exactly the kind of bitter truth he doesn’t want to hear. I also don’t think she’s depicted as someone who doesn’t understand the value of Facebook, apart from her one line about being amazed that Bosnia has Facebook but not roads. (At the same time, I wasn’t terribly clear on when the depositions were taking place. Assuming it’s about a year after Mark and Eduardo’s fight and Facebook reaching one million members, that still only puts the timeline at around 2005, when Facebook was popular but not yet an omnipresent part of modern life).

That just leaves Christy as the remaining major female character… and yeah, I’m not even going to try and pretend she’s isn’t a one-dimensional stereotype. She’s a plot device more than anything else, although I will say that she isn’t portrayed as a gold digger – she becomes interested in Eduardo when Facebook is merely the biggest thing on Harvard’s campus, rather than a website that’s potentially worth billions. There’s never any indication she’s with him for the money.

On an unrelated topic, I’ve always been curious: Did you finish reading Y: The Last Man? Given its focus on gender relations and Israel, I was wondering what you thought of it. Personally, I really liked it, but found it somewhat thematically muddled.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

This isn't the topic of the post, Jack, so just briefly: I don't think the fact that these characters are portrayed positively is a counterargument to my claim that they are types, and specifically types that place them outside the technophile world of Facebook. Mark does spend the entire film trying to get Erica back and yet all of his millions won't do the trick. Marilyn still stands outside the Facebook phenomenon - and the deposition scenes take place long past the 1M mark where the film's events proper end - with a sort of bemusement that marks her as an adult to these squabbling children.

As for Y, no, I never got around to finishing the series.

Jack Rodgers said...

My apologies -- I only started visiting this blog recently, so I wasn't here when you wrote your first post on The Social Network. In retrospect, I probably should have gone back and commented on that review.

Either way, keep up the great work and thanks for recommending The Cookbook Collector to me (I hadn't heard of it before now, sadly). And thanks also for being the only sane person to point out how damn shallow The Hour is.

Post a Comment