Fashion designers exploit women.
This is a theme in “fashion-model lit”: Mary Gaitskill’s novel Veronica, Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me, and Brett Easton Ellis’s Glamorama (oops, his model protagonist is a man). The models take drugs, go to parties, get ill, and are ambivalent about their jobs.
Lois Gould, however, in her edgy 1976 novel, A Sea Change, has a different take on rebellious fashion models. Published in the decade of Roe v. Wade and the Take Back the Night marches, this somewhat dated radical feminist novel is both a violent allegory and a strong dialectic against violence against women. It is also so shockingly anti-male that it would not be published today. A Sea Change would likely detonate the fuzzy minds of fans of 50 Shades of Grey into a horror of comprehension of the significance of violence against women.
The protagonist of A Sea Change, Jessie Waterman, a beautiful former model, is a rape victim. Living in a brownstone in a dangerous neighborhood in New York with her husband, Roy, who frequently refers to her as a “crazy cunt,” she is unluckily at home one day when a black gunman robs the apartment and rapes her with his gun. (After the rape, she decides ironically that they are intimate enough for her to refer to him as B.G.)
She is tied up with torn nylon stocking binding wrists and ankles behind her back.
She had been in this position long enough to plot a series of spectacular escapes. Rolling to the open window and hanging out like a lumpy package, bound fingers grasping the ledge, SOS notes written with a pencil grasped in the teeth and spat out into the street. Whoever finds this I love you; please excuse handwriting.
Jessie’s irony keeps her whole. But she is not known for irony. In her ordinary life, she is a meek, sweet, passive housewife, not a “new woman,” as she tells us. She has quit being a model because she has a horror of becoming an “old model.” In the wake of violence, she is anxious about her nine-year-old daughter, Robin, who has nightmares, and her neurotic stepdaughter, 13-year-old Diane. So the Watermans decide to move to the edge of Andrea Island, whence Roy will commute by helicopter and spend only weekends with them.
Jessie is happier without him. She has tired of his verbal violence, and discovered that she secretly hates him. The two girls are also calmer without Roy. They play complicated games with dolls representing Hatshepsut (a queen/king) and other historical figures. Diane, who is obsessed with Jessie, masturbates constantly. When Roy goes to Europe, Jessie’s best friend, Kate, who was having an affair with Roy, comes to visit, and they become lovers. Surprisingly, Jessie is the dominant one.
It is a strange household.
What happens to this all-female household during a hurricane is highly symbolic and dramatic. The gist is that women must understand male violence to take charge of situations; either that, or they are violated. Jessie protects the house during the hurricane, though she almost loses the children. And when a strange man enters the household…you don’t want to know.
Many ’70s novels are like this–the language somehow doesn’t translate the mood and mores. I’ve had that experience with Erica Jong’s novels, too.
This is not a very good book, but Lois Gould’s Such Good Friends is rumored to have stood the test of time.