Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Penelope Mortimer's My Friend Says It's Bullet-Proof

Penelope Mortimer's My Friend Says It's Bullet-Proof is dark, chic, and multi-layered--one of the more demanding overlooked feminist novels of the '60s.   Published in 1967, it is faintly reminiscent of Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook.  In both novels, a writer tries to compose her life through endless writing in a notebook. 

Mortimer's novel is short, only 224 pages.

Penelope Mortimer

Mortimer's more traditional novels, The Pumpkin Eater (NYRB) and Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (Persephone), are still admired, but  My Friend Says It's Bullet-Proof, reissued by Virago in 1989, is out-of-print.  It is a difficult read, as it is also (partly) meta-fiction:  the story of a writer's sexual identity interwoven with her notebook writings and how she edits what she writes.  The narrative voice is third-person limited, and the notebook, written in quotation marks, is stream-of-consciousness. 

The heroine, Muriel Rowbridge, is a lovely young woman, a writer for a women's magazine. She does not want to resemble her boss, "the General," who is held up mockingly as an unfeminine professional.  But the General has allowed Muriel to write columns on whatever interests her.  After breast cancer and a mastectomy, Muriel is sent on a press trip. 

The novel covers the short trip to Canada, on which she is expected to go on guided tours, attend receptions, and interview  people, mining the experience for her magazine column.  But Muriel is cynical.  She is painfully conscious of her artificial breast and does not consider herself quite a woman anymore.  She misses her married lover, Ramsey, with whom she broke up.

Instead, she writes endlessly in her notebook.  She runs away from scheduled events.  And she becomes, on different levels, involved with three men.  

Godfrey, a married English journalist and a Catholic convert, is a new friend.  He is concerned about her.  He talks about God and she  thinks he wants her "confession." 

Robert, a Canadian, has a sexual affair with her and falls in love.  He is the first man she tells about her mastectomy.  He helps her accept herself by telling her not to wear the artificial breast.

And then she falls masochistically in love with a married filmmaker, Macneish, who has only the most casual interest in her.  Her infatuation resembles a crush:  it is a repetition of her love for Ramsey, the married man in England.  

In the course of the novel we learn about different kinds of love and work.  She understands she should choose love rather than rejection. 

Although I admire Mortimer's style, parts of the notebook are mawkish and repetitious. But then Mortimer shows us that these are Muriel's rambling notes:  she repeats some of the notes in a more polished version later--and they're literature.

So the book is about love--and meta-love. And work.

This is a book that improves on rereading.  There is so much here.

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