Freedom is a Complex State

An Interview with Zoe Pilger

In Zoe Pilger’s debut novel, Eat My Heart Out, twenty-three-year-old Ann-Mariecarries a jokey philosophy book in her bag, a comic introduction to Heidegger, explaining it’s all she can read since she “went crazy” during her final exams at Cambridge. Her longtime boyfriend Sebastian has just dumped her and now she’s stalking an older guy named Vic, a war criminal. Broke and manic, working as the “door bitch” at a chic London restaurant, Ann-Marie lives life as a string of faux pas and outbursts until she encounters the famous feminist author, unhinged second-waver Stephanie Haight. Actually, Ann-Marie’s life continues much the same, except that suddenly, under Stephanie’s wing, she becomes the voice of a generation. Ann-Marie’s the quintessential post-post-feminist girl, at least for a minute.

As its fast-paced plot becomes increasingly outlandish, Eat My Heart Out tempers its serious questions about love and freedom with dark humor and biting parody. As she tells the story of Ann-Marie and her messy friends, author Zoe Pilger takes very entertaining swipes at contemporary art, heterosexual romance, academic feminism, rich people, and the international reputation of Williamsburg.

Pilger is an art writer and Eat My Heart Out is her first novel. She was in London and I was in New York when we spoke via Skype.

—Johanna Fateman

I. LOOKING FOR A HORIZON

THE BELIEVER: Your protagonist Ann-Marie, she’s so…

ZOE PILGER: Fucked up.

BLVR: She is fucked up, she’s a train wreck, but she’s amazing. Where does she come from? Has her voice been with you for a while? At the same time that she’s so vivid as a disaster, she does feel like a vessel for a philosophical idea about… Well, I don’t know. Tell me about her.

ZP: I shouldn’t have said she’s fucked up. I’ve been defending Ann-Marie in one way or another for about two years now. And I really reject that kind of straightforward analysis of her, although her behavior, as you say, is completely disastrous. Ann-Marie is caught between opposing forces. On the one hand, she has a desire to be passive and to be pleasing to men, to be desired by men. And on the other hand, she is ruled by an unfocused, volcanic violent rage. She isn’t “political,” she hasn’t come into consciousness as a feminist and yet, to me, her anger is somehow righteous.

BLVR: I think there’s something very appealing about her because she’s a totally uncensored person. She’s obviously tormented, but there is something enviable about her impulsive behavior. She’s always eating. She may have this desire to be a “feminine” girl yet she can’t stop stuffing her face; she demands sex; she’s violent.

ZP: Yes. And yes, she is a vessel for philosophical ideas. In books by men, it’s quite common to have male antiheroes who are preoccupied with philosophical questions and anxieties, but it’s far less common in female characters. Ann-Marie isn’t just a girl who’s falling apart because she’s broken up with her boyfriend. Her crisis is truly existential. She’s concerned with the idea of freedom. Since the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s women have an unprecedented degree of freedom. But this is not simply a positive. Freedom is a complex state that Ann-Marie must negotiate for herself. She violently rejects all restraints imposed upon her while she’s driven to find her own limitations or boundaries. So, throughout the novel, she’s reading Heidegger, and she’s looking for finitude, looking for a horizon—not to entrap her self but to give her life some form. Because, otherwise, freedom is not just meaningless, it’s is actually threatening.

BLVR: It’s clear from your references and your approach and your other writing that you identify as a feminist. So then what is your relationship to Ann-Marie who doesn’t?

ZP: No one has ever asked me that before. I’m not sure. While I was writing Eat My Heart Out, I was also doing a PhD part-time at Goldsmiths about the artist Sophie Calle, looking at her work in terms of ideas of romance and femininity and feminism since the 1960s. I wrote the novel in the evenings, and I spent my days in the British Library wading through a lot of dense, often jargon-heavy feminist theory. Some of it I completely loved and it really influenced me. But, at the same time, I was thinking about how these ideas could relate to my own life, to how I want to write. A big problem I have with academia is its encryption of fascinating ideas in a language that few people can understand. It’s something that I satirize in the character of Stephanie Haight—you know, like how she talks about “phallogocentrism” all the time. Her relationship with Ann-Marie grew out of a conversation that was going on in my head at that time, a dialogue between an older generation of second-wave feminists and a younger, post-feminist generation of women. But I don’t personally identify with either position. Stephanie is trying to mentor Ann-Marie, to bring her into feminist consciousness, but Ann-Marie just doesn’t get it—or she’s willfully facetious a lot of the time. And then, Stephanie, the grown-up, the feminist, she’s basically a sadist. She’s as deranged as Ann-Marie. One of the most resonant ideas of second-wave feminism is “the personal is political,” and we don’t see Stephanie practicing her ideals in her personal life—not at all. I didn’t want to make her into a complete monster, though. Her belief in feminism is authentic and her despair at looking at younger women like Ann-Marie is authentic, too.

BLVR: You include passages from Stephanie’s book Falling Out of Fate. Ann-Marie shoplifts it and reads it as well as the Heidegger book. I really love these fictional excerpts. I love the voice you chose for Stephanie. It’s imperious and authoritative and I agree with a lot of what she says—in a way. She’s not a stupid cartoon character. There’s something elegant and interesting about her writing even though you’ve created it as a parody. Do you agree with her ideas?

ZP: I definitely do. It’s all based on my PhD research. Her thesis is a crazy, more extreme version of my PhD dissertation. So it was lot of fun to write. As you say, she’s very authoritative, and she makes a lot of generalizations. There’s no real attempt to acknowledge the broad range of experience. You know, for her, “men” and “women” are monolithic categories. But I do agree with her in many ways. I’m really fascinated by her idea that there is an unspoken cultural imperative for women to fall, to self-destruct, undermine themselves. And Stephanie understands this in a deep way because, as she says at the end of the book, she has an inner voice that constantly undermines her as well.

II. HALF PURSUING AND HALF REJECTING

BLVR: There’s a lot of s&m in your book. And there are some extreme examples of pursuit and withholding between the characters, with their roles reversing as the story evolves. It’s really interesting that these dynamics are at work in both the heterosexual dating relationships—is “dating” the word, here?—as well as in the intergenerational relationship between women, between Ann-Marie and Stephanie. And actually it’s this platonic relationship in which the s&m is more literal. Stephanie locks her up and tortures her.

ZP: She makes her sing Beyoncé…

BLVR: …until she’s still exhausted.

ZP: When I was in my early 20s I read Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher. I was really stunned by it. I haven’t read it for years because it’s so unrelentingly bleak. I was very interested in her ideas about how different forms of structural oppression, subordination, and inequality produced by capitalism reinforce patriarchy and gender. And how this is manifested in individuals as sadomasochist desire. And there was also an essay which I really loved by psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin called “Bonds of Love: Erotic Domination and Rational Violence.” She wrote it in 1980. It looks at sadism and masochism; not in this 50 Shades of Grey sense of whips and chains, but in the sense of how culturally, “normal” femininity is masochistic and passive. And normal masculinity is sadistic. Like you say, with Ann-Marie and Vic the dynamic completely reverses. She pursues him at first. Then he falls in love with her and she loses interest.

I find it much more difficult to write about equality. I’m currently working on a new novel and I’m trying to write a female friendship that is completely equal. There’s a certain push-pull but essentially, the power balance is equal. It’s much harder to write.

BLVR: That’s interesting.

ZP: I guess it’s like sex. I find it much harder to write loving, gentle sex.

BLVR: Yeah. I guess you could say Ann-Marie has horrifying sex, or failed sex. Like, what is she even doing? In Eat My Heart Out there’s a vision—I’m not going to say that it’s a critique of romantic love and heterosexuality, although that’s one perspective that you’ve incorporated into your novel—it’s more like a vision of sex roles and sex in complete shambles. Ann-Marie “wants a boyfriend” but does she really? It doesn’t seem like it.

ZP: I think she’s half pursuing these conventions of romantic love, and half rejecting them. Which produces this kind of contrariness. There’s this line in the first chapter where she says, “I only want what I hate.” These contradictions of desire and behavior run all the way through the story.

BLVR: That’s very exciting that you’re already at work on a new novel.

ZP:  I started writing this one in November. It’s very different from the last one. Certainly in style, I hope. It’s about a romance writer who’s locked in a mental asylum for pushing against the bounds of the genre. It is very much inspired by my experience with the publication of Eat My Heart Out, by the way many people have struggled to put it in a category of women’s writing, or chick lit, or literary writing by women. It didn’t seem to fit into any of those.

BLVR: No. It really doesn’t.

Photograph by Francesca Allen