Have you ever had one of those totally magical experiences when you’re killing time at Barnes & Noble and you spot a book with an intriguing cover and you pick it up and you read the first goddamn sentence and you immediately have to stand in one place and hoover up as much of the story as you possibly can?
That was me last month when I seized upon Barbara Bourland’s absurdly well-crafted debut novel, I’ll Eat When I’m Dead. It’s an anti-capitalist satirical high-wire act masquerading as fluffy Women’s Fiction – with a capital W and F – and I could not get enough of the damn thing.
The story begins with the suspicious death of wealthy heiress Hillary Whitney, a senior editor at the prestigious RAGE Fashion Book. (Think Vogue, but with an aggressively pro-labour bent.) Hillary’s longtime friend and fellow editor, Cat Ono, is left to unravel the mystery of her colleague’s death – all while contending with an international beauty industry conspiracy and the rapid death of publishing as we know it.
Bourland was generous enough to geek out with me via e-mail about her book’s philosophy on feminism and Marxism and WASP-y dilettantes. Check out her answers below!
Generally when I see the fashion world portrayed in popular media, creators are either providing full-throated glorification or else satirizing the industry in a way that’s disrespectful of women’s intelligence. I’ll Eat When I’m Dead strikes a sort of middle ground I’d never encountered before, with these very capable and very intelligent women deriving real enjoyment from their work while running up against the dark, sticky bits of the industry. What was your thinking behind that approach? Were there any particular narratives or tropes you were looking to challenge or deconstruct?
I agree wholeheartedly that we don’t necessarily see a lot of nuanced portrayals of the world of fashion. Fashion as a verb, not just a noun; to make, to fashion yourself. When women talk about clothing, and our appearances, there are a lot of externalities at play. Cost, time, perception, culture, context, ethics, convenience, and of course messaging, advertising, etc. I personally don’t have a way to write about fashion that doesn’t process all of those things at once. The approach of I’ll Eat When I’m Dead is simply that of both: fashion is both fun and absurd. It’s both meaningful and a waste of time. It’s good for you and it’s bad for you. It creates jobs and it destroys economies. It’s amazing and brilliant and it’s incredibly fucking dumb. Think of the Vetements DHL t-shirt. Hilarious, genius, stupid, offensive, all at once, and now if you wear one, it’s a cultural artifact, a walking anecdote.
As for the challenging or subverting narratives—which in this case would be the standards of women’s fiction as I’ll Eat When I’m Dead is a big pink book—I’m trying to deal with subject areas that are unique to women, while taking into account the particular contexts those subject areas hold. There’s no reason not to. Fiction is free in that way. And I’m not the first. IMHO, Confessions of a Shopaholic is a totally hilarious anti-capitalist manifesto. Each chapter begins with a threatening letter from her bank. It’s not unconscious.
Cat’s locked in this eternal struggle to transform her fashion career into something more edifying – bringing feminism to the masses, talking about labour rights on the red carpet, hoping against hope that they don’t fuck up the Sylvia Plath shoot. In the process, though, she ends up taking part in a lot of things she finds destructive and humiliating. Is there a way to bring feminism into fashion? Or, at the very least, is there a way to defend femininity without literally being like, “Spending two hours a day on your makeup routine will empower you!”
You can defend it — just maybe not for profit? We are constantly being sold feminism. Every headline, print or digital or social media, is a kind of sale on behalf of an advertiser. Yet I honestly don’t know if feminism is something we can buy, especially when it comes to our appearances. I’m leaning towards no. Obviously [spoiler alert] Cat, even as smart as she is, with everything that she has going for her, is incapable of experiencing that level of for-profit self-fashioning without suffering. The more she participates, the sicker she gets, and at the end of the book she’s made the extremely rash decision to work for a four-year-old media company helmed by teenagers, and she has a full-blown eating disorder, and she goes to live with her parents. It’s not a happy ending.
On the other hand, fashion’s effects are a bell curve, because when I get dressed and put on makeup, there’s always a theme, a kind of costume theme, a visual narrative, and that feels like self-expression. It feels like art. It feels good. But once you approach the top of the bell, it turns to quicksand, very very fast… that’s a hideously mixed metaphor, but I hope you understand what I mean.
How long did it take you to land on that perfect, perfect first sentence?
It was not impossible for a thirty-seven-year-old woman to starve to death in Manhattan, less than a mile from the nearest Whole Foods, though it was unusual.
I think it was the structural edit. So I guess the technical answer is almost four years, which is the distance from when I first wrote out the idea for the book (followed immediately by two years of not working on it at all, then a year of writing it and months in edits) to the writing of that sentence. The dead body was not originally on the first page. But when I did finally write it, that whole prologue was drafted in an hour, and I don’t think it changed very much.
In the world you’ve created, RAGE is single-handedly leading a worldwide charge to promote “ethical” clothing made by living-wage workers – mostly, it seems, through Paula’s sheer force of will. Is there a parallel social movement today, or is anti-sweatshop activism obsolete in a time when Forever 21 sells jeans for three bucks apiece and nobody bats an eyelash?
This is such a big question, so I’ll do my best to answer efficiently, but I think it has a ton of facets.
First, as to the parallel: no. Margot and Paula and RAGE are an absolute fantasy of mine — though of course, I’ve said this before, I’m so cynical that even my fantasies are failures. I’d say the real world is quite literally the opposite. Broadly, media properties dependent on advertising revenue that do not consider themselves news organizations — which is to say, nearly every magazine and website — tend to avoid writing about topics sensitive to their advertisers. This is capitalism. Media is a business. Culture is a business. Everyone who works in media, especially women’s media, lives in that compromise. I think that answers your second question a bit further — Cat, as you pointed out, is locked in that compromise, though only visually, because it’s more fun that way.
Outside of anything that could be considered parallel to RAGE (by audience, prestige, circulation, etc.), there are absolutely many organizations that are actively attempting to regulate and monitor all aspects of the garment industry. Fashion Revolution, The Fair Labor Association, and Project Just are examples, though all three have different missions.
Finally, no, I don’t think this kind of activism is obsolete. I don’t think any kind of activism is obsolete. You’re the one who has to live with yourself, you know? It matters what kind of person you are, and what kind of choices you make. I’m not religious, but I do believe that very very firmly. However, I wouldn’t necessarily call what RAGE is doing in the novel “activism.” It’s a branding strategy from a large, privately owned corporation, to apply the core tenets of Marxism atop a capitalist economy that runs on images of women’s bodies. That’s the joke — not a funny ha-ha joke, but that’s the narrative of the book.
I noticed, too, that many of the characters engage with RAGE’s ethics mission in a way that feels very out of touch – i.e., Lou’s wonderful yogic cleansing elephant sanctuary in Nah-miii-biii-ah. Is there a point at which that kind of activism just loses efficacy by virtue of the privileged people leading the charge?
The failures of RAGE aren’t due to an inability to advocate effectively for their mission. That failure is due to the realities of how magazines make money, which is to say, that they don’t make any — not any more. Magazines as we know them became an industry while my grandmother was alive, and they will die off in my lifetime. Advertising-based revenue is being drastically transformed at this very moment. And if magazines don’t make money from or for their advertisers, then they lose the power to shape culture by shaping economies.
As for Lou specifically — she’s a dilettante who is trying to fit in. She is mimicking the values of people whose respect she would like to have, but they’re not her own actual homegrown values. Yet everyone does this in some way or another, and I think the efficacy of the impact of any argument, yes, does depend on the issue or the person delivering it.
Because beyond a certain threshold, we’re all too privileged, we’re all too out of touch, we’re all too absurd. To someone working in the garment industry in Bangladesh, there’s no difference between you or me or Lou. There’s a lot of ways to be a dilettante, to be an insincere person… or to accuse someone of being a dilettante, or of being insincere… I think it all depends on who’s talking and who’s looking.
And of course that is a distraction from the real problem, which is just the financial system in which we live – capitalism – pitting us all against each other, making us rats in a cage who fight over the authenticity of who is authorized to complain about the flavor of the pellets. And all the while the cage is growing smaller and smaller. Lou is meant as a deeply hilarious, outsize version of that push and pull of what’s authentic and what’s not. Like everybody else in the book she wants to lead an authentic life. And I think she is so, so funny. I would happily go on vacation with her. But I wouldn’t want her to be my mother.
Cat’s an interesting protagonist in that she’s not quite an outsider – her family’s very wealthy, she’s had a world-class education, she speaks six languages – but there’s juuuuuuust enough separating her from the WASP-y American upper class that she feels persistently out of place. She moves between worlds a lot. What is her code-switching meant to reflect?
That everybody feels like an outsider. Everybody. Absolutely everybody. We are all trying to fit in, all the time. We are all trying to find our place in the world, especially women; we have been conditioned to believe that our appearances are paramount to our success on this planet, and that’s an idea we just can’t seem to shake, no matter how hard we try.