ARTS

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April 29, 2005

Art of Undressing author embarrasses herself with prose, not lack of clothes

How does a 25-year-old aspiring chef manage to deal with a sexually uninhibited ex-stripper mother, a callous quasi-estranged father, a moody 12-year-old half-sister, a hypercritical French cooking instructor, and utterly incomprehensible men? Stephanie Lehmann's The Art of Undressing seeks to answer that age-old question as she follows protagonist Ginger Levine, a culinary student, through Manhattan.

Ginger's mother, Coco, a former exotic dancer who currently teaches striptease classes and shills vibrators, provides a not-so-subtle foil for gawky, self-conscious, relatively conservative Ginger. Coco's and Ginger's opposite sexual philosophies provide a background for Lehmann's trite philosophical ruminations on feminism and feminine sexuality. Lehmann has nothing original or interesting to say on the subject, but she dutifully recites every feminist line.

One: "That [morbidly obese] woman wanted to affirm herself to the ideal that she was sexy no matter how much she departed from the ideal, no matter how many bikinied 20-year-olds her husband saw in a typical television-watching day. By god, more power to her."

Two: "How could you [get breast implants]? So disgusting. Pandering. Where's your self-respect?"

Three: "I couldn't help but notice Tara's annoyingly cute, tight, curvy little body and flawless tanned skin." (The slender women are the antagonists; the curvaceous one is the protagonist.)

Four: "Even through his suit, you could see his ass was a definite 10." In her tirade against the objectification of women, Lehmann appears incognizant of the irony of her characters' complete objectification of men.

Five: The requisite man-bashing: "He was a Healthy American Male. He wanted to get stoned, go to clubs, and have sex with strangers, right?"

Six: "She [Ginger's grandmother, a heroine] favored white jeans, blue work shorts, and Birkenstocks."

Seven: "But if I was a female, wasn't I defining what was feminine—not the other way around? Did the differences between the sexes have to be all exaggerated?"

Eight: "Man, these stores took advantage of people. Undoubtedly they couldn't get employees to stay because they paid them next to nothing."

Nine: And, of course, the general theme is that men are scum.

The philosophy is hackneyed, the plot is predictable, and the characters are flat. Further, it seems like Lehmann, vaguely recollecting her high-school English class, decided that she ought to pepper her novel with literary devices. The Art of Undressing contains by far the best and largest collection of absurdly atrocious literary devices, as demonstrated by the list below.

The abject awfulness of the writing is more than sufficient reason to read this book. The Art of Undressing is by far the most quotable book I have read in a very long time, as you can see. Lehmann's novel is delightfully unselfconscious, and it had me laughing hysterically throughout.

Worst conceit: "Why was my stomach churning as if a woman's hips were gyrating inside my rib cage?" Followed, several pages later, by: "[I felt] a sadness that landed in my gut, as if those gyrating hips in my rib cage had landed, in a heap, on the floor of my stomach."

Worst culinary simile: "I knew what he was going to say, but I had to hear him say it, like cream calls out to be whipped."

Worst fecal simile: "It [the softened butter] landed like a humongous splat of bird shit."

Worst sexual simile: On buying high-heeled shoes: "Like a bride in an arranged marriage about to be deflowered, I made one more futile protest."

Worst cinematic allusion: "I felt like Humphrey Bogart must've felt when Ingrid Bergman walked into his bar. 'Of all the vibrator parties in the world…'"

Worst Greek mythology allusion: "The attendant paused from her Sisyphean task—putting a huge pile of bras back on their hangers—and led us to some curtained booths right next to each other."

Worst metaphor: "Was this [my refusal to wear ass-hugging pants] why I was languishing on the shelf? Waiting to be discovered by the discerning shopper not deceived by fancy packaging?"

Worst anthropomorphism of the weather: "The rain came down in hard mean splats."

Worst anthropomorphism of food: "Turnips, carrots…very standoffish, these foods."

Most melodramatic discussion of shoe shopping: "…blood going to my head, cheeks flushed. I hooked the Ped back over my heel again and jammed my foot in. Felt the hard leather imprison my foot. Poor little scrunched toes pleading for mercy. Was I really going to relent? Join the enemy? Give in to the insanity? My foot was unrecognizable. The top of it was almost bursting out, and the toe cleavage only seemed to broadcast that I was an animal, a Homo sapien, related to the apes and monkeys..."

Clumsiest cliché: "'Maybe,' I said, my heart skipping about 300,000 beats."

Least eloquent chiasmus: "Okay, so then Mom, if it's so simple, if men just want someone to suck them, then why have all your relationships with men sucked?"

Most trivial grand geste: "When I stopped at the corner for the light, I pressed the Band-Aid [that Tom had put on my finger] against my lips and smelled the plastic. I didn't like to wear Band-Aids; I always felt like they suffocated my skin. But this one, I was leaving on."

I urge you to read The Art of Undressing for its peerless butchering of literary devices. The prose is remarkably tight, and the novel is a quick and easy read. The novel is delightful in its ridiculousness, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with a sense of humor.

Further, it is chock-full of indispensable advice. There's classic advice: As everyone knows, "Men don't want to talk about feelings, okay?" There are modern truisms: "Your vibrator never rejects you." Then there are great truths: "It's hard to have perspective on your own butt."

At any rate, The Art of Undressing will leave you with something to think about: "I bet people who order cappuccinos when there's a big line have no problem taking their sweet time coming to orgasm."