Click here to read reviewer Mayra Calvani's take on Unkempt.
The first page of fiction is critical for this reader, be it short story or novel, even, as the author says, the first five words, where I am drawn to a manuscript or turn away. Eldridge’s first story, “Fits and Starts,” is a wordy challenge; I am not attracted to precocious writing or the semantic acrobatics evident from the first page: “What happens is I write a first sentence, then I read the sentence that I’ve just written...”
When does prose achieve form and substance? And when is prose just self-indulgent rambling, touching on the collective unconscious? In each story, the author makes gratuitous use of “so far, see, consequently, oh and what’s more,” segueing into another direction from the original. Patiently, I move on to “Sharks”, a rambling dialogue with a friend who has unusual fears, a contretemps between friends, more of an overheard conversation of the kind one imagines between young people with ubiquitous cell phones clutched to their ears, terrified of being alone with silence.
I try one more, hoping for some diversity in “Thieves”, a letter of dispute with a credit card company that serves as a vehicle for another digression: a fraudulent purchase, a writer whose story was stolen and a disturbed shopper, an anecdotal mélange without resolution, only the signature, “Courtney Eldridge.” So far, everything sounds the same, as though I'm eavesdropping on a conversation but never included.
To avoid making a snap judgment, I read the title story of the collection, a novella that deals with a mother-daughter emotional tug-of-war, apparently the common denominator of their relationship, hiding a painful history of betrayal and disappointment. Only in “Unkempt” is there any intimation of depth, but even this sudden insight is relegated to the last page.
Hailing Eldridge’s literary inventiveness, editorial reviews applaud these quirky, irreverent stories, suggesting comparisons with literary ironists. But I don’t find this work remotely accessible, too clever by half, the irony drowned by excess. At best, Unkempt is a stream-of-consciousness diary. Perhaps Eldridge’s effort is the obvious offshoot of chick-lit and will enjoy a ready audience.
Certainly, the stories appeal to critics and many readers, but I reserve the right to disagree, plagued by a sense that someone is putting one over on me, the irony hiding a smirk. Unkempt is unfinished, flirting with emotions without the courage to confront conflict and resolve it...all of the stories end in a psychological “whatever!”, the hallmark of avoidance, like a sullen adolescent refusing to talk about her problems, clutching an iPod and the soothing chatter of a cell phone, the neurosis of a generation, revealing more by what is unsaid than the torrent of words that fill the pages.
Neurosis is exhausting. Unkempt makes me want a stiff drink or an overdose of Prozac. Am I out of step with the times? I feel like an old rocker at a hip hop venue. Perhaps Eldridge is the prototypical writer of the future, her mind a seething cauldron of inventiveness and conflicting thoughts, none held back. That’s the beauty of books- there’s something for everyone.