My review of a new novel by Teresa McWhirter is in this week’s Georgia Straight. Set, for the most part, in Vancouver, Five Little Bitches chronicles the story of a fictional all-female punk band.
Unfortunately, it trades in just about every cliche you might expect from the premise. Plus, it’s a bit of a mess – it even seems unsure of which era it’s set in.
I felt bad for giving it a negative review, since the author is local (in fact, we live in the same neighbourhood – according to her bio, McWhirter makes her home in East Van) and I know people at the publishing house, Vancouver’s Anvil Press.
However, the more I read the book, the angrier I became. I started out wanting to like it – hey, East Van punk rock chicks on the road and slinging tampons – but by the end, actually probably the half-way point, had stopped caring what happened.
To be fair, it’s tough to write a convincing novel about a fictional rock band. I’ve read, or tried to, quite a few, and most fall short. But what really bugged me about McWhirter’s novel is that Five Little Bitches seems so lazy, as if the author couldn’t even bother to do some research.
Anyway, you can read my Straight review here. It’s a condensed version – I was only allowed 300+ words – so here’s the original version, which I think explains my opinion a little better.
Book review – Five Little Bitches by Teresa McWhirter (Anvil Press)
– by Shawn Conner
Woe to the novelist trying to depict a fictional rock band. Even heavy-hitters like Don DeLillo and Jonathan Lethem couldn’t quite pull off a believable fictitious pop act in Great Jones Street (1973) and You Don’t Love Me Yet (2007), respectively. Perhaps Michael Turner has come as close as anyone in Hard Core Logo; in that 1993 book, the Vancouver author created a more or less believable portrait of a punk band through letters, interviews, and other (fictional) ephemera.
Five Little Bitches (Anvil Press, softcover, 296 pps, $20) is no Hardcore Logo. The fourth novel by East Vancouver writer Teresa McWhirter, Bitches uses a few borrowed techniques – a shopping list, an interview with two of the band members – but it tells a mostly linear story about Wet Leather, a quartet of Vancouver punk rock chicks who find each other, start a band, and spend the rest of their brief career fighting amongst themselves.
I suppose this is one of the ironies of the novel, or at least the marketing of it. The book’s back cover calls the saga “full-throttle grit-lit from a psychologically charged feminist perspective.” But anyone reading this book will come away with all their worst suspicions about a band full of women – that they spend all their time bitching at each other, talking about boys and their periods – confirmed.
The book’s problems go beyond stereotypes though. Five Little Bitches seems confused even about what era it’s set in. Thanks to Derek von Essen’s graphics, both inside and out, it looks like it’s a novel about the early days of punk. However, in the description of Wet Leather’s sound as well as people’s reaction to the band – one (male) DJ even asks what it’s like to be in an all-girl group, something that is, arguably, pretty rare these days, even at the most backwards, Nickelback-playing radio station – Wet Leather seems to be an L7-type of group circa 1992.
But McWhirter also mentions a band website and a “heavily downloaded” video clip, which anchors the story in present-day; the disconnect makes it hard to buy anything else about Five Little Bitches. And, I’m sorry, but I’ve been to hundreds of gigs and I’m not sure which era an audience member might yell (as happens towards the end of the book) something even approximating “You look like ya got a nice CUNT!” Obviously McWhirter and I have been going to very different shows.
I didn’t want to mention this but the raw language is an issue. I’m sure the steady streams of obscenities from McWhirters’ characters’ mouths are meant to show us that women can be as horny and juvenile as men. Hey, thanks for the newsflash.
Yet I will give the book this; a raw, punk energy courses through it like bad heroin in the veins of a junkie on Hastings Street on a Friday night (sorry, slipped into some Five Little Bitches patois there). This isn’t always a good thing, though, as the book could have used some editing. Following a rehearsal, McWhirter tells us “each girl has different thoughts.” Well, yes. Some lines have an appealing, probably accidental, absurdity, however, including head-scratchers like “When the chef wasn’t working he shopped for women shopping for vegetables” and (my personal favourite), “Her feelings for him are more than just scrambled porn.” Does that come with hash browns?
There are some good lines too, though; “Over time, she learned it was not in her best interest to be kind” has a nice, understated elegance. Then again, the term “turd holster” does not – but thanks for introducing it to my lexicon.
If the book had had a more thorough editorial going-over, and if McWhirter had done a little more research and chosen an era and said, “I’m going to write about an L7-type band and what it must have been like to be an all-girl band in 1992” or asked “what’s it like to be in an all-girl band in 2012?” Five Little Bitches might have had something to say. As it is, the story is mundane and the characters aren’t much more than names on paper, with bad boyfriends. And “Wet Leather”? Come on. I think I’d much rather read a book about a band called Turd Holster.