Is Alix Kates Shulman’s Burning Questions the most underrated novel of the ’70s?
When we remember women’s fiction of the ’70s, we think of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (the American edition was not published until 1971), Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (now a Penguin classic), and Marilyn French’s best-seller, The Women’s Room.
These books have their place in the feminist canon. But Alix Kates Shulman’s sharp, funny second novel, Burning Questions, is their equal or perhaps a notch or two up. If Philip Roth had written this tour de force, we’d be worshipping at the shrine. This chronicle of a woman’s life, from Indiana girl to New York Beatnik to housewife to radical feminist, also delineates the growth of the Women’s Liberation movement in the ’60s and ’70s.
Shulman treats serious issues, but has a light touch. I am laughing over the antics and reflections of Zane, the bright, nerdy, Midwestern overachiever narrator. And as I read I am underlining passages. Zane was a Hoosier of the ’50s, I was a Hawkeye of the ’70s, but we were both Midwestern women of different eras looking for meaning that would cost at the least a geographical change.
Zane was always different. As a child in Babylon, Indiana, she tries to dig a hole to China. She is tolerated by her peers but considered weird: she skipped a grade in school, plays chess, and is on the debate team in high school.
Her parents dissuade her from moving to New York straight out of early graduation from high school, so she attends community college for two years first. After earning her associate’s degree in the late ’50s, she moves to Greenwich Village, hoping to mingle with artists and writers. But after a week’s wandering around the city, she desperately realizes she will never meet anyone this way. So she contacts the friend of a friend, who turns out to be a beatnik. And Zane, an excellent student, quickly perfects her role as Beatnik poet’s girlfriend.
As always, I was a quick and ardent student, purifying my line, learning in minute detail the dos and don’ts of beatnik life. ( Do: divest yourself of property. Get on welfare. Fuck. Learn a craft. Renounce your past. Don’t: read anything with a circulation of over five thousand. Be a joiner. Stay sober. Tolerate the word beatnik.) Others, with achievements or credentials above suspicion, might take the rules into their hands and display a weakness for frilly clothes or indulge a taste for restaurant life, disdain dope, eschew sex, express jealousy, read tabloids or crime fiction. But I did nothing even slightly suspect, afraid that a small mistake would show me up as an imposter
Shulman’s descriptions of Zane’s job as a temp secretary are also illuminating. When Zane is assigned a broken typewriter , her savvy colleague Nina guides her to an illicit storeroom that belongs to another department. They help themselves to a state-of-the-art typewriter and office supplies. (Zane doesn’t really want anything, but Nina explains it’s their obligation to steal from the corporate publishing company that is exploiting them.)
Nina’s supply room turned out to be only the entranceway to a whole underground life she had created for herself outside and inside the office. The next day, as promised, she brought me several books, among them an illustrated volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a 1958 yearbook, Montaigne’s Essays , and a small novel by Colette.
“I didn’t know what you like, but these seemed safe. This company doesn’t have the greatest list. The pickings vary every season.”
“Did you … take these?”
“Does that worry you? Here—” she said, taking the books back and writing something in their flyleaves. “Now everyone will know they really belong to you.”
I opened the books. To Zone, for those old Paris days, Love, Colette. Second-best wishes from your friend Will . I put the books in my bottom drawer and thanked her.
Whether we were Beats, hippies, punks, yuppies, Gen-Xes, or whatever comes later, most of us have tried to fit in with peers who pride themselves on having no rules, or worked in offices where rebels are sticking it to the man. Like Zane, I never particularly needed extra paperclips or post-its, but it was fun hanging out with the Ninas anyway.
And now I must race through to the end.
Sounds fab – very much of its time but that’s no bad thing. You’re making me want to dig out The Woman’s Room and finally read it!
She reminds me of a female Philip Roth. I did love The Woman’s Room but it’s been a LONG time since it read it so no guarantees! Virago reissued it, though, so maybe it IS good.
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