The IHOP Papers – Skip It
Review of The IHOP Papers by Ali Liebegott.
The word that best defines this book –indeed, which looms over it like a vulture—is “arch.” What one senses, unfortunately, is that Liebegott was actually hoping for something along the lines of genuine emotion, dark humor, even angst. The trouble is, The IHOP Papers is one of those “post” books in which no sentiment or experience can be presented unless it appears quotation marks. The heroine is “depressed”; she thinks about “killing herself”; when her lover treats her badly, she’s “desperate.”
It’s the trouble with the books that an entire generation of too-cool-for-their-own-good writers is churning out: nothing can be expressed without irony or self-referential commentary (implicit or literal): You’re reading a book by a writer who wants to remind you constantly that she knows she’s writing a book.
In the end, then, what The IHOP Papers is, is a huge drag. And it’s a shame, too. For anyone who has ever lived in San Francisco—and especially for anyone who has spent part of a callow youth in the grip of the city-wide mania that being marginal, depressed, suicidal, queer, broke, or a “freak” elevates one’s coolness—Liebegott captures that brain-addled San Francisco Zeitgeist to a “T.”
What she cannot manage to do is make Goaty, her heroine, stop sounding like she’s frantically rehearsing a standup comedy routine she intends to entitle “My Fucked-Up Life.” Liebegott wants to engage us, even move us, but she doesn’t know how to write about desperation, dead-end employment, self-mutilation, depression, or suicide without cracking an often-lame joke, without inserting those ironic quotation marks. She takes you right up to the brink of genuine experience and then she pulls a spit-take.
Liebegott wants to describe the way “conscious,” “enlightened” (here, the quotation marks are obligatory) SF dykes of a certain stripe deploy the language of pop psych and semi-digested spirituality to wage emotional terrorism on those less linguistically clever; but she never quite nails the issue down. Irene, with whom Goaty is in love through much of the book, is a monster; why can’t Liebegott come right out and say it? Why can’t Goaty?
What’s ultimately most depressing about The IHOP Papers is the sense of Liebegott flailing about, unable to find compassion for her characters or invoke it in the reader. She hands her narrative over to a protagonist who, though she is swimming in a sea of humanity and though she mechanically mobilizes the language of concern and connection, is ultimately too busy with her own alienation and self-involvement to notice whether anyone else is there. Liebegott shifts Goaty from one random encounter to another, attempts to find meaning in what is essentially Brownian movement, and fails. In the final chapters, Goaty’s actions becomes increasingly frenzied as Liebegott tries to conclude an essentially formless novel, and the reader loses touch with Goaty altogether.
It is also at some point in the last several pages that Goaty asks (rhetorically), “Do you think I’m a sociopath?” The answer, sadly, is yes. Writing a heroine who’s a sociopath—that is, a character for whom the external world is both irrelevant and largely invisible—would be a tall order for the most accomplished writer; and it’s no surprise that Liebegott can’t manage to pull it off.