Zoe Pilger is a polymath with a dirty laugh, and she doesn’t know how to relax. It’s been a busy year for the author, art critic, and soon-to-be Doctor (she handed in her PhD last month); first novel Eat My Heart Out came out in January and she’s already onto her next one.
Surely it must be tough flitting from one role to another? “No,” she says emphatically, “I’ve got used to writing in a lot of different registers – academic, fiction, journalism – I really enjoy working on lots of things at once.”
Eat My Heart Out is my favourite novel of the last five years, the frenetic hipster farce I always wanted to write. It spends a fortnight in the life of Ann-Marie, degree flunker and relationship dumpee; what follows is a joyride through the last fifty years of feminism, careering through continental philosophy like it’s cardboard and pinballing off pop culture landmarks. Pilger did her PhD at Goldsmiths on romantic love & the artwork of Sophie Calle; in Eat My Heart Out the London art scene is the backdrop for a feminist rite of passage that pursues romance to its illogical conclusions. Set adrift in Hackney’s hinterland, Ann-Marie goes on the rebound rampage with a freakishly tall man called Vic, before throwing herself on the double-edged mercy of evangelical second waver Stephanie Haight (Hate, get it?), whose oft-quoted book Pilger calls a “more deranged version” of her PhD. First on the bill at Manchester Literature Festival’s Canongate Lates night earlier this month, Pilger read out the scene where Stephanie locks Ann-Marie in her underground studio and forces her to primal-scream her way through her top three most played iTunes tracks. Listening to Zoe, it occurs to me that what feminism has always failed at is a silly sense of humour; Pilger’s ridiculous romp offers a refreshingly antidote to earnestness. “I don’t seem to be capable of writing anything without some element of humour in it,” she laughs, “I can’t write long descriptions of the English countryside!”
Along with Emma Jane Unsworth and Helen Walsh, Pilger has been corralled into a British ‘Bad Girl’ lit scene that puts the filth and fury back into women’s fiction. Clearly designed with clickbait in mind, ‘bad girls’ sounds coffee-chokingly condescending, and I ask her if it’s a useful category. “I think people can make of it what they want to,” she replies diplomatically, “For me what’s interesting is it’s a way of expressing how some novels have appeared at the same time as this new wave of feminism in the UK, so it’s an attempt to make a connection between what’s happening in fiction and what’s happening in terms of feminist activism.” When she began to conceive of the book five years ago, she says “feminism seemed to be in the doldrums,” emphatically not something a young woman would ever admit to being. Fast forward to 2014 and it’s ubiquitous, for this is the year of Malala Yousafzai’s Taliban-trashing Nobel Peace Prize and Emma Watson’s UN speech (powerful despite Karl Lagerfeld’s co-option at Paris Fashion Week), while Laura Bates’ #EverydaySexism campaign has become a juggernaut. Ever attuned to the zeitgeist, Zoe Pilger is already drafting her response: “in my next novel, a militant feminist movement takes over in the UK!”
Eat My Heart Out strikes a delirious balance between the posturing of philosophy and the fluff of farce, ultimately reading like a 21st Century manifesto for both men and women. “I think that’s exactly what it is,” Pilger agrees, arguing that women’s fiction is often ‘denigrated as self-help’ or dismissed as ‘thinly veiled autobiography’; while men are allowed to write about ideas, women’s fictional lives are limited to their romantic relations to men. “I really wanted to give Ann-Marie that sort of philosophical questioning,” she says, her encounters with the opposite sex exposing a patriarchy that Pilger believes dehumanises both parties. “Men’s presence in feminism is just as important as women’s” Zoe maintains, arguing that its egalitarian goals are impossible without our full participation. She describes a ‘backlash culture’ that has eroded the gains of the gains of second wave feminism, creating a kind of schizophrenia: “on the one hand women have more rights than ever before – we have access to education & employment, we have legislation in place which secures those rights – but on the other hand so much cultural representation and attitudes are regressive and misogynistic, so we’re out of balance.” Pilger’s willingness to dispense with the creative restrictions of genre and her piercing art-critical gaze have placed her in the perfect position to commentate on our cultural inequalities. She compares the freedom of the art world to the market-shaped margins of pop culture and commercial fiction; “They underestimate their consumers,” she argues, “I think people have a hunger for a much broader range of ideas”. Based on the appeal of Eat My Heart Out to fans of everything from lit-fic to clit-lit, I’d have to agree.
At the end of the Canongate night, I pluck up the courage to introduce myself to Zoe. I’m a bit starstruck, so I have to buy time in the toilet to think of something to say. Oh yes, I think, I forgot to tell her I actually liked her book last time, I’ll do that. I join the lane system leading to the Bad Girl signing table and as Zoe looks up all I can do is mutter, a mutter she must recognise as she says “Vienna, from last week?”
“Yes, ” I say. “I thought of a question I wanted to ask you after we spoke. Your PhD was about the possibility of Romantic Love…?”
“Sort of,” she says.
“What was your conclusion? Is it possible?”
I realise then that this sounds like a terrible pick-up line…
“I don’t think a PhD can tell you,” she says, without slapping me.
“So, onto a Post-Doc then?” I joke tipsily.
“No,” she says “I think only real life can tell you. But I’m onto the second novel now…”
As I talk, I’ve absentmindedly been pushing my copy of Eat My Heart Out towards her, the fan in me elbowing in front of the critic. She signs it and I run for the last train home, realising only then that she still doesn’t know I bloody love her book.
Eat My Heart Out is out now published by Serpent’s Tail
words Vienna Famous