Lindsay Hunter’s ‘Ugly Girls’: Fiction and the Spectacle of Rural Poverty

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Not long ago, I found myself trapped in an elevator with a finance attorney who told me, without blinking, that the show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo makes a “great case for eugenics in this country.” Motivated by my irritation, he continued: “Those people should not be allowed to breed.”

“Do you watch the show often?” I asked.

“Oh, I’ve seen probably every episode.”

From outer space, seen through 3D glasses, the United States appears to be an enormous, curved IMAX screen playing Duck Dynasty for the cosmopolitan hordes. Only, the viewer of this spectacle — this minstrel show that has become of rural life — oddly believes himself to be watching a documentary. It never occurs to him that TV executives might be taking advantage of his urbane self-satisfaction, that these rural “reality” characters might be playing on his sense of cultural superiority. And this is precisely why, having unmasked the reality stars for frauds — the Duck Dynasty cast was once “polo white” and not “country white”; Mama June’s boyfriend is a convicted child molester — the enlightened cosmopolitan feels justified. His baseline sense of “reality” is so impoverished, his curiosity about the country he lives in so minimized, that such revelations are enough to put him happily to bed.

Yet this problem cuts both ways. In much of rural America, these shows have an aspirational quality. One trip into a rural Walmart reveals all manner of Duck Dynasty paraphernalia, not to mention that the store walls are plastered with large, mural-like photographs of Duck Dynasty cast members. And, if you think about it, what is Here Comes Honey Boo Boo but a metaphor for the spectacle of rural poverty? The show doubles back on itself when you consider that it’s a minstrel show about pageantry. This unreal, aspirational quality has come to gentrify many of the best features of American rural life, replacing it with a version of televised “red state” mania that intensifies “rural” traits that enlightened cosmopolitans already love to hate (and watch).

The result is that America, at least culturally speaking, is increasingly alienated from itself. A recent survey of national ignorance in 14 countries places America in second place, just behind Italy. It has been suggested that the study, which asks statistical questions about the composition of American life, shows that Americans lack probabilistic reasoning skills. An example question: What percentage of American girls aged between 15 and 19 years give birth each year? The answer: 3.1 percent. America’s guess: 23.9 percent. But doesn’t this study also demonstrate America’s lack of self-knowledge? As the density of poverty in the United States becomes ever more rural, isn’t it troubling that Duck Dynasty, in 2013, brought in more viewers than any show (except for the top three scripted comedies)?

The spectacle of American rural life, especially rural poverty, extends beyond television, but hardly for the better. In cinema, we have the increasingly self-parodying Harmony Korine, whose raw early features have given way to films, like Spring Breakers, that intentionally eat themselves by sandwiching the aspirations of the poor (and bored) with the televised spectacle of MTVs Spring Break. And isn’t it telling that one our most beloved actresses, Jennifer Lawrence, transitioned from Winter’s Bone, a gritty if slightly inauthentic drama set in Appalachia, to The Hunger Games, a film that puts rural life at the bottom of a pile of spectacle?

The case of the novel may actually be worse. It’s not that contemporary rural novels are lackluster; in fact, for the most part, the best of them are excellent and possibly even better than their cosmopolitan counterparts. The problem, instead, is that the best rural novels are often periodized. This doesn’t takeaway from the quality of works like Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, but it does leave a large gap for writing about contemporary rural life in America.

So the case of Lindsay Hunter’s Ugly Girls is fascinating. Released by FSG Originals this week, Hunter’s debut novel comes on the heels of two praised (if somewhat divisive) collections of short fiction: Daddy’s (2010) and Don’t Kiss Me (2013). You can sense Hunter’s short and flash fiction pedigree in the construction of Ugly Girls; in the best sense, the chapters come across as pieces of flash fiction written from the perspective of the book’s variegated cast. And, as a cross section of rural poverty, the cast is something to behold. There is Perry, a “pretty” yet emotionally reactive teenager who lives in a trailer with her alcoholic mother, Myra, and her calm, supportive stepfather, Jim. Then there is Baby Girl, who is “uglier” than Perry, more emotionally reactive, and perhaps more fond of stealing cars. The friendship between Perry and Baby Girl — their navigation of the slow trauma of rural poverty, the vicissitudes of teenage ennui, the fits and starts of sexual maturation — is the heart on the novel’s sleeve.

To cut to the chase: Ugly Girls is exactly as flawed as it is promising. It is, without question, a debut novel. But Hunter’s construction of her rural world is especially strong — convincingly, the novel is set in trailers, Circle K gas stations, Denny’s, etc. It’s obvious, too, that the pace and patterns of these rural lives are traced by a knowing hand. From the teenage language shared by Perry and Baby Girl to the job histories of the characters — Jim is a prison guard, for example — the details of the book form a coherent world, a kind of spell that rarely breaks.

The world traced by Hunter is appropriately spare — poverty is by definition spare, at least in certain ways — and, if you want, “bleak.” This fidelity to the bleakness of rural poverty is the novel’s strongest feature. Yet, unsurprisingly, it’s the aspect of the novel that critics are already denouncing. This has led to some of the more unintentionally hilarious pieces of critical writing seen this year. In Electric Literature, Drew Smith wriggles at “the fervor” with which Hunter seeks out this “bitterly unromantic” world:

Nothing is ever ghastly enough. Baby Girl’s brother can’t merely polish off an entire box of sugar-covered breakfast cereal or wail like a disturbed autistic first grader. His penis must wag from his open fly. He must forget to flush the toilet after defecating. It isn’t sufficient that the hare-lipped pedophile endures the incestuous semi-overtures of his whale-like mother. He must rub her disgusting feet with lotion.

There is a pose or attitude at work here that seeks to gentrify rural poverty. Where Smith says “defecating,” someone in Hunter’s book might say “shit” or “poop.” We’re supposed to believe that these features of rural life are grotesque, mediatized tropes pushed by a perverse imagination rather than units of truth about the lives of individuals who live without social services or who build new forms of social being that clash with cosmopolitan sensibility. I call bullshit.

A more sophisticated critique of Ugly Girls comes from Annalisa Quinn at NPR, who argues that Hunter’s book slides into “a cartoonish cavalcade of poverty and depravity.” Although this review wants to rescue the dignity of Hunter’s characters from their author’s pose of “sneering confrontation,” it actually fails to notice that the “bad TV” dialogue and “unrelenting misery” of Ugly Girls is a salient feature of rural life. (As if book critics and their friends somehow avoid mediated dialogue and depression and bad behavior.) I do however agree with Quinn that Ugly Girls is mired in adolescence; its emotional and social range rarely transcends that of its teenaged protagonists. This problem stems from Hunter’s approach. Namely, Hunter’s narration veers wildly, like a teenage driver, between “literary” observations” and brief, inexplicable explosions of idiom. (She seems not to have considered how the narration would work from the first stages of writing.) And Hunter’s declaration that she wanted to write a “fairy tale” is bizarre. The book doesn’t at all read like a fairy tale, especially considering that fairy tales often feign innocence in order bruise it. Ugly Girls does the opposite; its characters feign maturity and worldliness in a televisual world.

But the problem is that rural America has absorbed its own representation on television. The media version of rural life is a crucial part of its identity. So it’s unrealistic and foolhardy — not to mention uniquely cosmopolitan — to yearn for a social realist epic about poor, rural life. Any book that takes this subject seriously will have to negotiate its mediatization. There has to be a way of writing fiction about rural poverty that deals with its spectacularization at the hands of media executives and cosmopolitan indifference.

Earlier this year, I heard a respected literary editor, one known for his empathy toward the poor, tell a crowd of well-off readers that he wishes we had more novels about the rural poor. “Only,” he said, “why do these novels always have to be set in trailer parks?” The remark revealed a great deal about our literary culture. If America does not know itself, literary culture is not exempt from this ignorance.

Ugly Girls might be imperfect, but it is brave. It might be spectacular, but it’s not, on the whole, untrue. It might be flawed, but, then again, it might contain more truth than we’re ready to acknowledge.