GLAMOUR is partly a book about magic and friendship. But it is mostly a book about class and labor. Now before you start clutching your pearls, I’m not trying to turn a generation of teen girls into howling Marxists. Actually, I wasn’t trying to do anything except tell Christina’s story. But Christina’s is essentially a tale of class envy. She’s a townie who labors in a one-stoplight beach town, catering to rich tourists every summer only to close up shop come autumn and surrender to the fog of invisibility until another season of service… so you can see that a class angle was sort of inevitable.
At the same time, though, I wanted to subvert expectations. Class in popular media is often treated through a black and white lens, when it is treated at all. In fact, there hasn’t been much discussion on the topic in recent years. It’s no accident that, in GLAMOUR, Christina and her best friend Bridget watch “old movies, like Pretty In Pink.” The 80s and early-to-mid 90s is the last time I can remember anyone talking about social class (where is today’s Roseanne?). An illusory prosperity bolstered by credit led to a decade and a half of ignoring class-consciousness in America, and after the bubble burst we found ourselves left with a wealth disparity unseen since the Gilded Age. What’s a girl to do?
Some references to the economic disaster of 2008 are made in the book, which incidentally I wrote while I was unemployed in 2009. Christina’s father is unemployed because “No one’s building anything now,” a reference to the bursting of the housing bubble. Her quasi-love interest, Matt, surprises Christina by mentioning that his father, too, is unemployed following the onset of the recession. He asks:
“What did [your father] do, before?”
The recession affects the labor force in the fictional Cape Cod town of Westervelt, where adults find themselves without work while their teenage sons and daughters toil in temporary jobs “because it depresses tourists to see thirty-five-year-olds flipping burgers.” Bridget, who owns the ice cream shop where Christina works, is forced to hire out-of-towner Reese when another girl quits on her suddenly for precisely this reason. She and Christina are both conflicted about it, but business is business.
Bridget lives in an economic world of her own creation. While her store naturally follows the usual seasonal patterns of Westervelt, it is bolstered by her “penchant for prosperity spells,” which are at times the only thing “keeping her crappy store afloat.” In other words, the only way Bridget breaks even is by using magic. As a small business owner myself, I have to say that some days I over-identify with Bridget!
Magic itself is a kind of labor. It is a skill, a highly sought after and useful one, and the only one that Christina possesses, besides being a “bang up food service worker.” Her options in life include working in food service, bagging groceries, or practicing incredibly powerful and enviably liberating magic. The choice is clear. Nonetheless, she is tempted to use her magic not to create a life for herself, as Bridget has done, but to use it to rig the game in her favor by taking over Reese’s life. It’s kind of hard to blame her. The game was rigged from the beginning, as Christina realizes when she takes a freshman tour of Harvard campus in Reese’s stead. Going to Harvard provides students with a meal ticket for life, she realizes. And some of the students there aren’t even there on their own merit – they’ve been admitted, she learns, because their parents are alumni. It is this realization that the game is fixed that essentially leads her into a darker place than she’s ever gone before.
But all of this would be too easy. Like I said, I had to subvert this black-and-white idea of class. I had to point out that poverty does not necessarily equally incorruptibility (Christina will learn some harsh lessons about her own parents) and that wealth is not always a signifier that someone is, as Christina would say, a total a-hole. Reese couldn’t just be a blonde, shallow, cheerleader type. That would be idiotic. So I gave her some of the best qualities of some of the smartest, most interesting, generous, and ambitious people I knew. I made her be smart and amazing. (But with some flaws; she’s not a total Mary Sue.) I let her use her privilege and wealth not to become a superficial moron but to explore the world around her, to pursue her interests and passions, to learn, and grow.
There was a recent episode of the miniseries Cosmos that made me think of Reese and Christina. In episode three, “How Knowledge Conquered Fear,” Edmund Halley (the comet guy) befriends and assists the struggling Isaac Newton. Newton wasn’t well off – he was at Cambridge on scholarship, and had no family to speak of – whereas Halley was the son of a wealthy soap-maker who indulged all of his passions for science and even funded his first voyage to the southern hemisphere to chart a map of the stars.
Newton, like Christina, was talented but embittered at his lot in life. Halley, like Reese, used his wealth and position to build up his friend, even financing his opus Principia Mathematica. The episode ends by drawing a parallel between the lives of Halley and Newton, “the man who had but one true friend,” and the impending merger of the Milky Way and Andromeda Galaxies, which will set off a gorgeous billion-year light show. This meeting of the minds, this true friendship between people with a brilliant inner light and fierce talent and intelligence, this is the billion-year light show of Reese and Christina.
Ultimately, class can and will be subsumed by talent – true talent. The forces of who you are and where you come from cannot easily be overcome, but they are not immovable barriers. The bigger barriers are in your own mind, in smallness of thought, in meanness, cruelty, shallowness, pettiness and jealousy. Is the game rigged? Yes, it is. But there are ways to cope. Through honing a skill, as Christina works on in the book (spoiler: she doesn’t achieve perfection in one summer). Through generously sharing knowledge, like Reese. Through attaining a delicate balance between life and labor like Bridget, whose motto may very well be, “Enough is as good as a feast.”
Incidentally, there is one person in the book who abuses her employees, sells false promises and cheap product, and values image above substance. She represents the worst of hyper-capitalism, the total undermining of the idea of honest labor at a fair price, the Walmarts and Foxconns of this world if you will. I’ll let you deduce what happens to her.
Bio: Andrea Janes lives, writes, and works in New York City, where she conducts guided walking tours of the city’s many haunted and macabre sites. Learn more at www.boroughsofthedead.com .
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