In fact, it’s when something seems “to work” that we are prone to take it for granted. Failure is what seizes our attention, shakes us out of our complacency, makes us alert.
This turns out to be a running theme — how a strain of perfectionism can doom a pursuit of failure to, well, failure. None of Bradatan’s characters cared much for the kind of democracy in which imperfection would be embraced and contained by institutions.
It is true that Oates’ book also exaggerates Monroe’s suffering and degradation for its own complex purposes—but that portrayal is counter-weighted by an abundance of Oatesian beauty, depth and power, striking a brilliant mixed tone that is appropriate to its subject. Monroe’s life was an electrifying intersection of opposites: love and lovelessness, degradation and exaltation, power and vulnerability—powerful vulnerability, lushly embodied. This is something Oates seems to understand deeply; that some people, some times, can be a “Fair Princess” and a “Beggar Maid” simultaneously. Such opposites are hard to bear, and they can be present in anyone’s life—I would even say that they are present in nearly everyone’s life in one way or another. But how hard and complicated to not only channel these opposites but to do so in public, in the creation of an avatar-like persona of pure delight.
Foremost among the book’s systematic proofs of this necessary contradiction is the vexed millennial dream of the glamorous life. In compromised conditions of earning (the trademark millennial curse), the desire to live according to a certain aesthetic (that, say, of bohemian glamour or ‘radical chic’) requires a baseline of cash that generally can’t be accrued in any manner consistent with that aesthetic, nor with the set of values that aesthetic connotes. Quitting the world of glossies, where an editor’s social life and salary expectation are ‘two parallel lines on a chart, never bending or crossing each other’, Stagg gives up Eames chairs, potted orchids and skylights for a laminate table and a cheap grey loveseat from which to make PowerPoint presentations and a larger amount of money. Asked in a radio interview how she manages to live as a writer of columns with zero constraints on subject matter or length, her answer is simple: ‘I also work in advertising.’ Her belief that fashion, by design, is an elitist game, ‘and therefore will always necessarily be ugly and hypocritical’, expands across the pages of SLEEVELESS to suggest an entire model of life whereby a person’s political relationship to the world depends less on their beliefs than on what they are able to stomach – the ugliness of actions weighed, in every case, against the ugliness of wardrobes. Fashion may be riven with ugly behaviour, and yet, Stagg concludes, ‘this inability to resolve into some moral right or wrong is what makes it so irresistible.’