Helen Schulman on This Beautiful Life

October, 05 2011
Arts & Culture, Culture

by Beth Kissileff

Helen Schulman is the author of novel This Beautiful Life, her fifth novel, which takes on the contemporary issue of privacy and the Internet. The plot is ripped from the headlines of The New York Times: A teenage girl sends an older boy a graphic video of herself in extremely sexualized positions. The boy, unsure how to respond, forwards the video to his closest friend for advice. It goes viral and he is soon called into the office of his New York prep school’s headmaster. The aftermath of the boy’s suspension from school creates extreme tension for his parents and younger sister, fraying their thinning family ties. While there are not explicitly Jewish themes in the book, the mother and children are Jewish characters; certainly Jews need to be aware of a tale of a Jewish family facing an issue that is part of modern life. It is a cautionary tale of making (potentially) public through the Internet what in all other eras would remain a solely private affair. IntheMoment spoke with  Schulman about her work.

What is the task of a novelist today?

I can only talk about my task. I’m not prescriptive about other writers’ work. Everyone has their own passions and ideas. Manifestos about fiction are kind of silly, I think, although they do draw a lot of attention to themselves, which is probably why writers sometimes write them.

What I hoped to do in my last two books (A Day At the Beach and This Beautiful Life) was write about the way we live now.

Why did you choose to write with Daisy [the character who sends the suggestive video] at the novel’s opening and closing but never in the middle?

I wanted to begin by casting a spell over the story, and I hope the prologue turns the reader into a voyeur of sorts, almost as if the reader herself were sent the video. This was something I hit upon well into the first draft of writing the book.

I ended with Daisy because I think she hovers over the whole story, the mystery of who she is and who she may become, and I hope that her resolution sheds light on some of the ideas I was wrestling with throughout the book. I found her both resilient in terms of her life force and devastatingly sad.

I want to ask about the character Liz as a mother  – is she too involved or not enough?

I think she is both too involved and not involved enough. It is extremely difficult to be a good parent. Life is very complicated, made up of rainbow shades of gray, and our internal contradictions and conflicts are what make us human. Liz needs to both let go of her children and hold on to them; it’s her timing that is sometimes off. I think she is a person who when faced with lousy choices makes worse ones. She loves her children with all her heart. In some ways she is blinded by that love.

What is going on with the women’s roles in this novel?

There is a phenomenon I have seen where many well-educated women, lawyers and Ph.D.s and MBAs, for example, don’t work. They often don’t work for good, loving, parental reasons – they want to raise their children, and their former careers and their husbands’ present ones don’t allow for much flexibility. These women are smart and capable, and I was interested in the choices that they made (because they have choices). What happens when you take well-trained people out of the workforce —where do their energies go? How do they feel about themselves? How valued are they? What happens to women when their self-worth is wrapped up in the home and in their appearance? What is the effect on the children they raise?

How do the Jewish identities of Liz and Jake [mother and son] impact them?

Liz is Jewish, and so are her children. Her husband is not. They have had a good marriage up until this point and they love each other, but there is some tension over their mixed status in the marriage, which adds  another layer of complexity to their relationship. I think moving to New York City offers both a sense of relief and new kind of self-recognition for Jake as a Jew.

Are there Jewish themes in the book?

Liz would probably identify herself as a secular Jew, and if she were to attend a temple it would be a Reformed temple. I think that for most of her life she has tried to live an ethical life and she has a lefty, liberal sense about her. She believes in social justice. She believes in the power of education. A lot of her ideas about how to live and construct a life get shaken when Jake forwards the email and she quickly realizes that they, her family, are in over their heads. Although her first impulse is to have her son apologize and own his behavior, she is dissuaded as soon as she realizes that the other parents and the school itself are pulling out the big guns. It’s then that she loses her ethical bearings and betrays her own moral code. She says to her husband  ‘I want you to be an a—hole”[to deal with the problem]. In an effort to save their child, both parents do things they never thought they would do.

The characters who are willing to reveal themselves online are Liz’s former flame Feigenbaum and Daisy.  What connects them?

What is so fascinating about the Internet is that we can reach almost anyone at almost any time, anywhere in the world. Yet we often simultaneously forget this fact –that once sent or posted our messages, images, etc. can indeed go to almost anyone, anywhere, at any time. And at this point, there is no taking them back.

Adults and teenagers make  the same mistakes (look at Anthony Weiner, for instance). We’ve been given this monumental gift, this ability to connect, and we don’t yet truly understand its ramifications. Politically, the Internet provides exciting capabilities –look at how it helped to inspire the Arab Spring. But Twitter and Facebook also helped to perpetuate the London uprisings. Somehow, I don’t think we realize fully what happens when we give up privacy and the inability to wipe the slate clean.  With the Internet, forgetting is over.

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