Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body
(The Feminist Press, 2021)
Beautiful World, Where are You
At first pass, these two novels have little in common, but there are some parallels. Both are about a process of change, a shift into adulthood, and the sharp and difficult journey that can be for many of us. Both are deeply compassionate novels—although Sally Rooney has been accused by some of writing with too much detachment, I don’t read her work that way. Both novels also delve into larger questions around identity, sexuality, class, and the nature of modern love. And both use experiments in form and point of view to tell their respective stories; experiments that are at times compelling and successful, at other times frustrating.
It is, in a way, unfair to write about Milks’s debut fiction in the same space as Sally Rooney—this is not to say that Milks’s work is not up to the challenge, but rather to acknowledge the giddy anticipation with which critics seem to treat the release of a new Rooney. After all, Rooney has won scads of literary awards for her debut Conversations with Friends (2017), and Normal People (2019) was adapted into an Emmy-nominated series. In July, The New Yorker published an advance excerpt from Beautiful World, and one media outlet referred to the advance copy of the novel as a “status symbol in the publishing world.” All of this aside, I’ve been thinking about what it is that makes a writer a rock star and if that even matters to me when reading a novel. I sometimes experience a sort of resentment at the assumption of brilliance that feels similar to that I used to experience any time a band (or film or book) got too much hype, even if later I’d discover that the hype was well-deserved. But really, all of the noise around Rooney’s work isn’t necessarily something Rooney has sought out like Alice, a successful novelist and one of the four protagonists in Beautiful World.
Putting all of that aside, what I really want to talk about is the work that both writers are doing around identity and what it means to be human in the world. Certainly, the “world” in both novels is limited to a largely heteronormative (more on Milks’s shift away from that later) and white point of view. While Rooney makes gestures to class differences (Alice is a now-wealthy writer sleeping/not sleeping with Felix who works in a warehouse), there are only white people in her novel. Milks’s much younger protagonist Margaret is white but she has a mix of friends and, unlike Rooney, gender identity is at the core of her novel.
Milks’s novel tells the story of 16-year-old Margaret Worms who is struggling to survive high school and an identity crisis in suburban Shady Bluff, Virginia. At 12 she was the leader of Girls Can Solve Anything (GCSA), solving crimes (real or imagined) and having adventures with her group of friends (Gretchen, Angie, and Jina). It’s the late ’90s and Margaret listens to Fiona Apple, drives a LeSabre, plays field hockey, participates in debate, and feels utterly lost. Her best friends have moved on to boys, but Margaret can’t seem to find “a clear and focused identity.” Note the class markers in Margaret’s life: she has a stay-at-home mom, she has her own car, and although she works a few shifts at a coffee place, she has time to participate in sports and debate and sit around listening to Fiona Apple thinking about life (that’s not to say her life is easy).
Just as we’re getting to know high school Margaret, the novel switches to seventh-grade Margaret and “Girls Can Solve Anything #4: The Case of the Stolen Specimens.” These “Girls Can Solve Anything” sections appear throughout the novel, providing the reader with background on Margaret and her friends, and giving an obvious nod to the popular Baby-Sitters Club series. Among other things, we learn that Margaret is very uncomfortable in her own body. She doesn’t like to spend time at the local pool, where she wears oversized t-shirts and stays in the deep-end, out of sight of a local bully. To underline this theme of body issues, the GCSA case is solved when the group discovers that their science teacher, Mrs. Stillwater, is experimenting on her own body because she is tired of being fat.
When the narrative shifts again, we learn that 16-year-old Margaret has earned a reputation for not eating, imagining that her friends move through the world comfortable in their own bodies while she feels “heavy and swollen, a ball of wet bread.” After field hockey, she overhears two girls in the locker room being cruel about her weight, saying, “If I were fat I would kill myself.” During a date with her crush, he admits he dumped his last girlfriend because she was anorexic. Margaret has already hidden her food in her napkin and has to rush to the bathroom because she’s taking laxatives.
The narrative shifts again to “The Mystery of the Missing Body,” in which Ms. Normandy’s disembodied brain has hired the GCSA team to find her body. The girls are now in eighth grade and things are no longer so innocent. A girl at their rival school, Melanie Flowers, has been missing since November, leaving the GCSA questioning their purpose. When Gretchen asks Margaret to the dance, Margaret is confused, reacts badly, harming the friendship. Margaret sneaks into Gretchen’s house, reads her diary, and learns that Gretchen has been spending time with the local bully, Will Warner. As readers, we realize that both Gretchen and Will are gay, but Margaret is too naïve to understand. Then Melanie Flowers’s body is discovered, Gretchen and Jina reject Margaret, and GCSA ends leaving Margaret rudderless.
Margaret faints in church and her mother takes her to the doctor. But the doctor just tells her mother that Margaret “needs to eat more.” This, we learn, is the same doctor who started Margaret on her first diet at seven. Her mother shifts from an earlier refrain of “Think how pretty you’d be if you just lost some weight,” to, “I’ve always been chunky. It’s just how we’re made.” In desperation, Margaret drives her car into a tree and is sent to a treatment center. The narrative then disturbingly shifts into second person, making the reader feel complicit in Margaret’s suffering and actions. Margaret meets Carrie who (in her words) excels at anorexia and attempts to give Margaret her first gay experience. Margaret is unable to reciprocate: Carrie is thin, and Margaret feels too fat for sex.
The narrative shifts into a series of letters and a final “mystery” sequence, involving a ghost from the 1920s and a graphic escape from the past through a giant, disordered body. The novel ends with a letter adult Margaret writes to Carrie detailing an exploration of the meaning of identity, eating disorders and feminism, and also an important message about trans identity that is ultimately lost in too much theory. As Margaret asks at the end of the novel, “How can a person choose to be who they are? What is the difference between the fantasy of anorexic body mastery and the magic of hormone-based transition?” While Milks’s point seems to be to stress the impossibility of resolution—“this story is aligned with unknowing”—by presenting Margaret’s trans identity as a near-afterword in a letter to a dead friend, we’re left not simply in a state of irresolution but frustrated at missed potential.
The four protagonists in Beautiful World are in a different period of transition: that difficult time at the end of the 20s when life shifts into adulthood and many—at least in middle/upper middle class Western communities—begin to question where they’re headed. Of course, the notion that anyone in their 20s has a clue about who they are and what they want may be laughable, and many of us have lifelong struggles around issues of identity, purpose, love, and sexuality.
The novel opens on a scene with an unnamed woman waiting in a hotel bar. A man walks in, checks his phone. They appear, we are told, “to be about the same age, in their late twenties or early thirties.” Eventually we learn that they are Alice (writer) and Felix (warehouse worker) and they met on Tinder. The date is awkward. The next chapter is the first of many long emails between Alice and Eileen. Through these emails we learn significant history of both Alice and Eileen and also their views on art, politics, the future, plastics, and sex. When we are introduced to Eileen, it’s through the same trope of filmic description, “a woman sat behind a desk in a shared office in Dublin … She had very dark hair, swept back loosely into a tortoiseshell clasp.” This woman meets someone named Simon in a café. It feels a bit like an affectation that we don’t learn her name until later: Eileen Lydon, and she is 29-years-old. Through flashback, we learn that when Eileen was 15, Simon was her only friend, and she was deeply in love with him. At 18, Eileen went to university, where she met Alice Kelleher. Simon stays in Eileen’s life, and after college, she and Alice stay roommates. Eileen is pursuing a Master’s and Alice is working at a coffee shop and writing a novel. Alice, at 24, signs an American book deal for 250,000 dollars. Eileen ends up working at a literary magazine for 20,000 a year. And although Simon and Eileen sleep together, he doesn’t follow through on their relationship. Eileen ends up with someone else (Aidan). Simon moves back to Dublin to work in politics. Alice moves to New York, then returns to Dublin and is “admitted to a psychiatric hospital.” The intense level of attention from her literary success has made Alice ill. Aidan breaks up with Eileen. In her next email to Alice, Eileen writes about the collapse of civilization gesturing at the unease that lies at the heart of their lives, “this sense of the continuous present is no longer a feature of our lives. The present has become discontinuous.”
Alice invites Felix to come to Rome with her. She writes a long email to Eileen where she complains, “Every day I wonder why my life has turned out this way. I can’t believe I have to tolerate these things—having articles written about me, and seeing my photograph.” And here is where there is a need for compassion: many people dream of that level of success but the reality really must be very difficult, “Whatever I can do, whatever insignificant talent I may have, people just expect me to sell it—I mean literally, sell it for money, until I have a lot of money and no talent left. And then, that’s it, I’m finished, and the next flashy twenty-five-year-old with an impending psychological collapse comes along.” Eileen, in her next email, has no patience for what Alice is going through, which leaves the reader wondering if we’re actually supposed to like either of these people.
Alice and Felix travel to Rome and admit to each other they’re “not exactly heterosexual.” This isn’t the only reference to non-binary ways of being but other references are equally surface and it’s unclear why they’re in the novel: Felix admits he dates men, asks Eileen to put mascara on him, hits on Simon, and there seems to be some sexual tension between Alice and Eileen, but it’s perhaps just there to add some much-needed depth. And that’s a part of the problem with this book: it’s very subtle, at times too much so. In one email to Eileen, Alice states that humanity lost our “instinct for beauty” when “the Berlin Wall came down.” It’s not really clear why that’s a particular marker for loss, and when she writes, “we are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something,” she sounds both lyrical and painfully 20-something, as painful as Eileen sounds arguing about the working class and Marxism at a bar with friends (the working class, it seems, is something to do with having a job and nothing to do with the non-white working poor). It becomes an exercise in readerly patience to continue to care about Eileen as she moves forward through her life, sleeps with Simon again, confesses she loves him, and then attends mass with him (although she professes to be a non-believer). Perhaps this is the point, it can be very confusing to be on the cusp of turning 30, even when you’re privileged.
The failure of both female characters to push back against negative behavior (Felix is into violent porn, Simon enjoys role play with Eileen where she is a little girl and he is in charge), is disappointing. If the reader is expecting a novel about the transition and growth of two young women into more positive, vibrant people, this is not that novel. Instead, it’s a gracefully written study of relationships between four deeply flawed people who try to find love in whatever form works for them. As Eileen says in an email to Alice, “wherever I go, you are with me, and so is he, and that as long as you both live the world will be beautiful to me.” And though she is annoying and playing a role (it’s hard not to roll your eyes when she writes about reading The Golden Bowl after reading the oddly misnamed The Karamazov Brothers), Eileen is trying to figure out how life works. Alice writes brilliantly about writing being like a love affair, and she is aware of her privilege, perhaps more so than the others, “I’m conscious of the extraordinary privilege of being allowed to make a living from something as definitionally useless as art … why should anyone be rich and famous while other people live in poverty?”
The novel ends in what we hope is a good place for all four characters where they, like Milks’s Margaret, have not only found a way of being in the world, but achieved a deeper level of personal honesty, one that allows for all the varieties of their identities beyond merely being white, beautiful, and in love.