Reviewed: Sad Girl Novel, Pip Finkemeyer, Ultimo Press
It’s a tall order to critique the very thing you are creating as you’re creating it. In the wake of Sally Rooney’s dominance over—for want of a better descriptor—‘women’s literary fiction’, perhaps it’s now de rigueur for the white millennial author to interrogate why we all write what we write. The most famous investigation into the ‘literary sad girl’ still comes from Leslie Jamison, who ruminates on the impact of her own memoir The Recovering, and explores many of these women across history.
But no critique has yet emerged that is more mercilessly wry as it delves into the cult of millennial ‘sad lady lit’ than Pip Finkemeyer’s brilliantly titled debut Sad Girl Novel. The book follows Kim, a twenty-something white Australian woman embarking on that classic middle-class rite-of-passage: living in Berlin and attempting to write her first novel.
As with most protagonists in this genre, Kim is a difficult main character. She is obsessed with many things: her terrible therapist, Berlin’s Ringbahn trains and the disenfranchised people who ‘attack’ her there, as well as with the intermittent and semi-obscure affections of her agent-of-sorts, Matthew Danish (whose name becomes one of the novel’s best jokes). Matthew might be romantically interested in Kim or he might be probing the depths of her creative talents for his own ends—it’s up to readers to work out his intentions.
To Kim’s best friend, Turkish-German academic Belinay, however, it’s clear she’s a kind of project: a broken toy that Bel must reassemble. Predictably, Bel comes from wealth, has just become a mother, and is secure and stable, while Kim can’t manage to finish her novel or even retrieve her suitcase from the basement. In a mode that becomes characteristic of Sad Girl Novel, Kim critiques a general reader’s dislike of ‘unlikeable’ characters as she presents herself to be disliked. ‘I was much more interested in myself than in history,’ Kim muses.
This metacommentary is a theme that runs throughout the novel: Finkemeyer knows exactly what the book is and perhaps seeks to mount a defence of it before potential critics. Key to this is the author’s hyper-awareness that she is writing a white woman’s debut novel in a deluge of similar works. Although Kim frequently ruminates on and even ridicules her own prototypical whiteness, saying things such as ‘history was extremely Caucasian and miserable, apparently. I supposed I was extremely Caucasian and miserable too’, she doesn’t delve into what it means to her; nor does Finkemeyer disentangle its meaning from her own self-aware jabs at the genre.
While Kim’s whiteness is sometimes a neat punchline to her eyeroll-inducing behaviour, it’s never satisfyingly interrogated. Even as she bemoans the lack of curiosity in Australian literature, it’s odd that little is said about the type of novel Finkemeyer has written: one that transports her protagonist overseas in an attempt to escape the very cultural cringe Finkemeyer critiques—and is possibly afraid of.
While the book is light on plot—very little actually goes on in Sad Girl Novel, as is often the case with this type of introspective literary fiction—Finkemeyer has a delicious way with words that blends self-important intellectualism with deliberately dim-witted millennial phrasings that had me queasy remembering all the times I’ve spoken just like that—Finkemeyer knows she has captured the tone of lost white women in much the same way as the Instagram page @insane_clown_pusse so beloved by the girlies. When Kim notes of Matthew, that ‘everything he said felt very @ me’, I felt a delighted pang of recognition.
Yet Sad Girl Novel feels incomplete. Although it captures the voice of the generic ‘sad lady’, it also tells us how little she has to say. If it’s indeed Finkemeyer’s intention to skewer this type of writer and genre of writing for its dearth of substance, she has fallen on her own sword—Sad Girl Novel is almost solely comedic relief. With its Berlin locale and self-awareness in its prose, it’s reminiscent of Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, another novel which attempts to interrogate a popular millennial genre through a sad white literary lady protagonist, and in doing so, exposes itself as lacking.
Nevertheless, Sad Girl Novel is at turns charming and relatable, as so much fiction in this genre tends to be (at least, for a white millennial woman readership such as myself). At the heart of the novel is Kim’s relationship with Bel and, though in many ways it remains unexplored, it’s an authentic friendship to wrestle with as a reader. And always, Finkemeyer’s droll voice runs your mind around in joyous rings. If Sad Girl Novel is nothing more than another example of ’sad girl lit’, it’s at least a diverting one.
Matilda Dixon-Smith is an author, editor and bookseller living on unceded Gadigal land. She tweets from @mdixonsmith.