Welcome to the second meeting of the Autostraddle Book Club! This week we’re discussing The IHOP Papers. Feel free to help yourselves to some tea and gluten-free pancakes while everyone gets settled. There are three kinds of vegan syrup, please leave enough for everyone.
There are certain themes that, largely by coincidence, have carried over from our first Book Club meeting: queer coming-of-age, poetry, leaving an unsupportive and homophobic family, heavy drinking, etc. Some things, however, we’re encountering together for the first time: recovery, polyamory, San Francisco and all that it represents, self-harm, and waitressing, that seminal experience that has left its mark on virtually every writer, poet, actor, and artist who have counted themselves among its ranks since it was invented.
There’s no one else here to tell me how to do things, so I’ve decided, pretty arbitrarily, that I’m going to divide this post into the top three things that Francie has feelings about, to make it easier for us to share our feelings on these matters. Our feelings on her feelings. Whatever. You get it.
Speaking of Francie…
She’s cute, amirite? I like how wide-eyed she is, how utterly guileless she seems. She is the definition of being entirely without guile. I mean, it’s not like she doesn’t scheme or ever try to deceive; I know she has dozens of secret plans for winning over every woman she meets, but they are all so desperate and wholehearted that I feel like she might as well be painting IN LOVE WITH YOU across her forehead. This quality also translates into a kind of intensity that’s scary sometimes; her wanting things is so bald and unequivocally that you wanna be like ‘Whoa, honey, calm down. Slow your roll.’ But then she’s so excited about something – like deer or motorcycles or sex – that you can’t stay mad. I like that. I think her voice characterized her super well, and her observations and (unintentional?) humor gave depth to what could have been a one-dimensional sketch of Aimless Twenty-Something.
“Hope, when you lose your virginity it’s the same as when a dog runs really fast and smacks into a screen door. The dog feels shock and some pain – a jolt maybe – but mostly it feels stupid and alone.”
I was also really interested in her preoccupation with being “tough,” especially when, to be honest, she seemed so clearly not to be. Not in a bad way, but she seems to me like a girl who wants to fall asleep with her head on your chest in bed, who buys booze for the alcoholic outside her apartment even though going into a liquor store has got to be hard. She wants to kiss the deer on the mouth. Where does all this talk about being tough come from? I think a better word is brave. Brave to leave her home and go to a new city, brave to tell someone she loves them, brave to quit drinking. I think I see her as someone who is brave, but isn’t capable of seeing herself that way. It’s an interesting thing, right?
1 – Self-Harm/Addiction
I’m talking about this first because this is the thing I want to apologize for the most. I had forgotten since my first reading how pervasive and graphic this portion of the book is. Francie’s voice is incredibly earnest and sincere; at least, she seems to be, when she’s talking to the reader – completely unable to hide anything or edit herself in any way. This honesty is pretty much what makes her as a character for me; however, what feels endearing when she’s talking about how much she wants to kiss a deer on the mouth can, in turn, seem overwhelming when she’s describing exactly how she wants to cut herself. Her honesty about her motives can be a huge turnoff, too; doing visible harm to yourself in order to garner sympathy from pretty girls seems like a shitty thing to do, and I found myself wondering if it made the book into an unfair depiction of self-harm in general, or of people who really want to be able to stop and who make a huge effort to keep their issues from hurting the people who love them. But then I remembered that at other points in the book, Francie is that person trying not to hurt people with her issues. So I guess I have no real conclusions here. The cutting parts of the book made me uncomfortable and sad. But I guess there’s not a lot of other ways to feel.
What I think redeemed the book in terms of its treatment of addiction, though – and maybe this is a weird or unpopular thing to say – was AA. Without going into too much detail, there were times when I wondered if there was an attempt to make Francie’s self-harm sexy or cool. She talks a lot about how ‘tough’ she wants to seem, and I wondered if that wasn’t happening on some level in the text too. But she talks about her commitment to AA at least as much if not more than cutting, and let’s be real for a second: there is nothing sexy about AA. AA, or any kind of recovery, is really fucking hard. It is being in a church basement at 10pm on a Saturday night, drinking juice and eating stale cookies and knowing that Stan the 7-11 clerk in the chair next to you understands a part of you better than your parents or friends or lover ever will. I have an immense amount of respect for people in recovery, and I think Liebegott does an excellent job showing her respect as well. I think knowing that Francie’s serious about AA is badass and gives us a whole new perspective on her character. To be fair, though, I’ve never been myself, and so maybe I’m not the best person to comment. Anyone else? Thoughts? Input?
2 – Waitressing
This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and part of the reason I wanted to read this book with you all. I know that waitressing has “been done,” since everyone who isn’t born into the royal family of Lithuania/a major American political dynasty pretty much has to do it at some point. There’s not much new left to say. But it’s done so well here; it all feels so familiar and right to me. The sore feet and back, the shitty tips, the nightmares (I heard the sound of a register in my dreams for months), hating how stupid everything was but also caring about the job more than anything else because you’re so fucking poor, hating your idiot coworkers but also feeling a deep sense of cameraderie with them because they’re the only people whose lives suck as much as yours. And setting aside my embarrassingly self-indulgent fascination with this subject, I honestly think it’s an effective parallel for Francie’s character.
Waitressing (or maybe any low-paying hourly wage job) has the weird effect of making you feel simultaneously powerless and proud of your independence. There are few things more humiliating than wondering if you’ll be able to pick up a Saturday morning shift because rent is due this week and you’re not sure if you have it or not. On the other hand, it’s also an amazing feeling to be walking home after closing with your tips in hard cash bursting out of your pockets; it makes you feel powerful, all that money in your hands – like you want to buy breakfast for everyone you know, and leave a 50% tip. It’s a hard job, and you don’t get much for it, but doing well at a hard job can make you feel good about yourself, too.
I was really nervous [about waitressing]. I mean really, really nervous. I was sure I’d never be able to carry all those plates on my arms, but at the same time I wanted to be the best waitress ever. I wanted to be so graceful that people would have to stop eating and stare astounded as I glided through the dining room with plates stacked from my wrists to my shoulders.
It’s not a coincidence that the book, with all its lesbian drama and scandalous addictions and San Francisco sleaze, is named after a pancake diner chain. The real action of the book begins with Francie’s elation that she’s managed to snag a job at IHOP; it ends, more or less, with her quitting her job at IHOP because it’s terrible and she hates it. To be honest, a lot of this book happens outside the main character; if you made a list of things that Francie does and compared it to the list of things that happen to Francie, one would be a lot longer than the other. But IHOP is a sphere of her control, where she actively makes a space for herself and makes friends and choices and manages to save $5000. That means something, I think. What exactly? I guess that’s up to you.
3 – Insane Lesbian Relationship Drama
Is this what the book is “about”? I don’t know. It is the thing I have the least to say about, probably because I have had my emotions surgically removed. I hate Irene. I’m just going to say it. Hate Irene, and Maria sounds super hot. I’m glad that the book didn’t end up being about “a relationship,” so much as Francie’s general relationship-navigation skills. I would argue that they improved markedly by the end, and I think the reversal of her caring for Irene’s dysfunction rather than having Irene care for her was nice. I think there was an understanding that that kind of dysfunction and neediness is something to be healed, not something to actively look for in a relationship or to use to attract or manipulate others. Basically, this book ended in a relationship with a cello, amirite? Part of me feels like this is trite, but a larger part of me has actually always harbored an intense fantasy of owning a cello (true story), so I am actually pretty into this. Differing opinions on the matter are welcomed, though.
INSERT THOUGHTS/FEELINGS/IDEAS/POETRY/INTERPRETATIVE DANCE HERE.