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Eat My Heart Out, by Zoe Pilger, Serpent’s Tail, RRP£11.99, 298 pages
Eat My Heart Out starts with a brilliantly odd intro that sets the tone for the rest of the novel. It’s 5am at London’s Smithfield Market. Vic, a “freakishly tall” man with lank hair, is watching butchers unload pigs from their vans when a girl approaches and asks him on a date the following day.
Ann-Marie, a 23-year-old Cambridge university dropout now working as a “door bitch” at a trendy London restaurant, turns up but lurks out of sight until Vic tires of waiting. Then, “arms and legs around him, piggy-back style”, she tackles him to the pavement and whispers: “My ex-boyfriend Sebastian was fucking this girl from the Home Counties called Allegra behind my back. I didn’t think I’d ever get over it, but now – since I’ve seen your face, I think I might get over it.”
Zoe Pilger’s debut continues in this rebellious spirit as we follow Ann-Marie around London, from art galleries to a drinks do in Islington and an early morning warehouse party in Hackney. Wherever she goes, trouble follows; above all, she seems to enjoy tormenting friends, ex-boyfriends, partners, anyone she comes into contact with.
It isn’t easy to see where the deadpan pastiche ends and vicious satire begins. The wealthy liberals, young creatives and journalists we meet are lampooned as ignorant consumers, the kinds of people thrilled to pay £500 for a jar of “limited edition dead bees”.
The overindulged hipsters of Generation Y – those born in the 1980s and 1990s who believe their aspirations have been crushed – do not escape either. A group of failed writers, artists and intellectuals struggling to connect with the real world, they live and work – or fail to work – in London, and spend most of their time high on drugs, talking about how best to be.
If this sounds horribly narcissistic, that’s because it is. But it is also frequently very funny. Freddie, Ann-Marie’s gay best friend, gives up painting to “invest his creative potency in video art. Now he only works in 8mm.” One character wears a “onesie with the words Please Snort Me emblazoned across it”; another has hair “slicked back Lost Generation style”. Ann-Marie strikes up a friendship with feminist icon Stephanie Haight and is exposed to “hyperfemininity” – knitting, cleaning, stripping – to shake her out of the rut she has found herself in.
Pilger, arts critic at the Independent newspaper and daughter of journalist John Pilger, writes in a pleasing (but occasionally irritating), free, formless style. Chunks of the novel are made up of letters, passages from books and text messages. The prose is simple and direct but sometimes also ungainly.
Still, Eat My Heart Out is pacy and packed with incident. Its pop-up format offers all manner of quick pleasures. The cultural references allow Pilger to use the novel as a kind of collection box for gathering the complaints and complexities of her generation. The problem with girls like Ann-Marie, one character says, “is that you love with all your hearts what you know in your heads to be wrong. You love it ironically.”
Always wary of notions of sincerity and authenticity, not wanting to let go of the protective irony that has defined her youth, Ann-Marie is left to find her own path through this “hyperfeminist era”. We never quite understand what this means, but we wish her well. We love her, but only ironically.