‘Plain Bad Heroines’ Is a New Kind of Lesbian Fiction

PLAIN BAD HEROINES
By Emily M. Danforth

Curses are a singularly feminine concept in our culture. The word often conjures up images of old hags performing wicked deeds and witches entrancing helpless, pure souls. Menstruation is sometimes referred to as “the curse”; in Genesis, God punished Eve with the pain of childbirth after she ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Whether in the Bible, “The Scarlet Letter” or “Carrie,” female misbehavior — or just femaleness itself — reaps disastrous consequences.

In her adult debut, “Plain Bad Heroines,” Emily M. Danforth presents a layered, farcical take on the sins of woman — though after 623 pages, it remains unclear what, exactly, her take is. The novel centers on two narratives: one set at the Brookhants School for Girls in the early 1900s, the other set circa 2015, as a cast of young women return to the school to film a movie about its grisly end.

Though Brookhants is fictional, both narratives hinge on “The Story of Mary MacLane,” a very real memoir published in 1902. Originally titled “I Await the Devil’s Coming,” the book detailed the 19-year-old’s precocity, boredom with feminine expectations and attraction to women. In its time the book was considered so radical that this paper speculated that the author may not actually exist.

“Plain Bad Heroines” opens by quoting “The Story of Mary MacLane”: “I wish someone would write a book about a plain, bad heroine,” MacLane wrote, “so that I might feel in real sympathy with her.”

Danforth then introduces five heroines, none of whom seem particularly plain (two are Hollywood actresses) or bad. In 1902 Rhode Island, Principal Libbie Brookhants and her lover, Alex, battle an impending evil as it settles over the school. In the mid-2010s, the B-list actress Audrey Wells stars in “The Happenings at Brookhants” alongside Harper Harper, an “indie-film darling turned celesbian-megastar influencer.” The film, a historical retelling with a “Blair Witch”-style, pseudo-documentary twist, is based on a book of the same name by the prickly wunderkind Merritt Emmons, also along for the ride. As Audrey, Harper and Merritt all develop the film, they are barraged with curselike phenomena. The 1902 story attempts to explain said curse’s origins.

Yet ultimately, “Plain Bad Heroines” explains very little. Though no words feel wasted — this is, after all, about a movie within a movie, based on a book within a book — both narratives end anticlimactically. The true story of the Brookhants curse comes in fast and bewildering, like a swarm of yellow jackets. And there is a problem of literal anticlimax in the modern story line: Though Audrey, Harper and Merritt are all attracted to one another, “Plain Bad Heroines” is shyer about lesbian sex than Danforth’s earlier, Y.A. novel, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.”

The literary skill Danforth demonstrated in that bildungsroman is still present here. She uses vivid language to capture each time and place, in a narrative that is rare even among lesbian fiction: Not one of the five leading women is straight. And Danforth’s own experience with book-to-film adaptation — “Cameron Post” hit the big screen in 2018 — has drenched “Plain Bad Heroines” in knowing cinematic wit.

But as critics once wrote of MacLane, Danforth’s brash narration is as much a liability as it is an asset. By the end of the book, her footnote-loving omniscient narrator has turned this lovable quirk into a blunt instrument. We know this writer is infinitely knowledgeable about Rhode Island, Hollywood, Mary MacLane, witch hunts and horror movies. But underneath this deluge of theory, Danforth’s plot is cursed to end in maddening ambiguity.

“Plain Bad Heroines” is neither plain nor bad, but the spell it casts is merely a glamour, beguiling readers with clever quips and striking imagery. Danforth’s prose lingers, hinting at some deeper, transformative truth, before it slips away without achieving true alchemy.

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