Literature is not the domain of the ordinary; even the most uneventful life lived by the most unremarkable person can become, through literature, extraordinary. The personality and particularity of character, no matter how seemingly typical, will ultimately undermine representativeness. The fineness of literature’s observation prevents it from being a useful tool of the sociological sciences, which build knowledge out of collective experience and behavior.
And so it is that Hilary Thayer Hamann’s Anthropology of an American Girl is a vexed novel from the start. Following young Eveline Auerbach from her senior year in high school through her college graduation, the novel wavers between being about a particular time and place, Long Island and New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and trying to capture some universal quality of coming of age in America. The cognitive friction in the title demonstrates the contradiction quite neatly — an anthropology of a single individual borders on the non-sensical. And this is not merely a problem of phrasing, the cross-purposes evinced on the cover undermine the novel as a whole.
The problem, quite simply, is that Eveline has only the faintest wisp of a character. She has attributes, to be sure — she is beautiful, middle-class, and smart — but she has no consistent self, no center to hold the novel together. Even events that would be soul-shaking to most of us, including a sexual assault and a spectacular public miscarriage, don’t seem to have any effect on her.
For the first third of the novel, it seemed Eveline’s emptiness might turn out to be satirical, a kind of Babbitt for the privileged, teen-age suburban set. And there is here an element of gentle critique of the unselfconscious banality of adolescent ‘realization’ (“Lately I’ve been thinking of Cuba. I imagine it to be the last original place”). But instead of recognizing and engaging with this kind of solipsism, Hamann attempts a literary re-branding; Eveline’s nullity becomes the vessel for Hamann to noodle metaphors beyond all sense. Consider the following passage about Eveline’s friend Kate:
She cupped her mouth and imitated an implausibly tranquil public address warning. It was like a European airport voice, like the one we heard at Charles de Gaulle airport when we went to France with the French Club — sterile and synthetic, glassy and opaque, like rocks at the bottom of a fishbowl.
The metaphorical gurgling at the end is really just sleight of hand to distract from the central banality and blandness of the moment. Eveline seems so bored with her friends, her life, and herself that she struggles to imbue the trivial with poetic possibility. But these all turn out to be dead ends, and try as she might to see the world differently, she still cannot be moved by it.
Her disinterest in herself and in those around her is broken just once, by an intoxicatingly beautiful semi-professional boxer named Harrison Rourke. Their few weeks together during the summer of her senior year become the Golden Age of her young life — after their separation, for reasons that are virtually incomprehensible, she spends the next four years psychologically inert. She goes through the motions of college (though somehow manages a 4.0 without the faintest glimmer of ambition or academic excitement), eventually falling into an engagement of convenience. And again, Hamann could have steered Anthropology of an American Girl toward a bracing cultural nihilism, but instead Eveline’s future-history clears up for reasons that are as mystifying as they are trite.
In fact, Anthropology of an American Girl might be described similarly; it is a bewildering odyssey through the well-trodden and already known.