Revenge, by the book

Darcy Cosper contributes to publications including Bookforum and Time Out New York.

DEBRA GINSBERG'S debut novel, "Blind Submission," is a Revenge of the Entry-Level Employee fairy tale in the tradition of such books as "The Devil Wears Prada," "The Nanny Diaries," "The Second Assistant" and "The Twins of Tribeca." And, true to genre, it features an attractive, gifted young woman; a villainous boss; assorted co-workers of the treacherous, clueless and sycophantic varieties; a love interest or two; and a few industry-related set pieces.

But these mass-market attributes are strangely at odds with and likely to deter the tweedy reader who might otherwise look favorably upon a book that takes place in a literary agency, a setting conspicuously lacking the allure of fashion, film and Upper East Side society, the glamorous and moneyed milieus in which such tales usually unfold.

Ginsberg gamely overcompensates, sexing things up for her readers. The novel's heroine, Angel Robinson, is an olive-skinned lovely with waist-length tresses described as "titian" who modeled her way through college. But she's also "a passionate reader able to devour whole tomes at a single sitting," whose "unquenchable appetite" produces a "dizzy pleasure from the weight and feel of a new book, a sensual delight from the smell and crispness of the pages." One can only imagine that such polymorphously perverse responses would be a distraction in Angel's place of employment: an independent bookstore.

With encouragement from her handsome fiance Malcolm, a writer himself, the young bibliophile's lust leads her to seek a position at the aforementioned literary agency, where even her interview is eroticized: "The author's mind was certainly where great books germinated, but this was the place where they began to bear fruit

The source of these thrills is the agency's owner, Lucy Fiamma, an agent legendary for her six-figure book deals. But Angel's nemesis-to-be is also a volatile, autocratic narcissist with Mephistophelian mood swings and an epic contempt for her writers.

As Lucy's assistant, Angel endures the indignities traditionally suffered by such heroines: answering phones, negotiating office politics and attempting to read the mind of a mercurial employer -- whom Angel admires for her professional savvy and accomplishments, despite her dubious morality and distinct resemblance to Cruella De Vil.

Angel's duties also include reporting on the hundreds of manuscripts per week sent in by hopeful authors, including the unsolicited or "blind" submissions. At this task our passionate reader excels; Angel has an eye that not even Lucy can disparage. And these preternatural literary sensibilities, combined with her reverence for writers, endear her instantly to the agency's clients. She charms the reclusive, difficult Inuit writer Karanuk, celebrated author of the international bestseller "Cold!," into submitting pages from his long-awaited sequel and plucks from obscurity Damiano Vero, an Italian heroin addict turned pastry chef whose memoir is matched in desirability only by the hunky author himself.

Shortly after Angel takes over reporting on the submissions, mysterious messages ("I am your next star author. The manuscript is on its way. Get ready.") begin to arrive at the office, followed by installments of said manuscript, e-mailed directly to Angel by an anonymous writer known only as G.A. Novelist. Entitled "Blind Submission," the novel takes place in a literary agency and features Alice, a ruthless, unscrupulous young assistant and her brilliant, charismatic boss. Subsequent installments bear an increasing, albeit a darkly inverted, similarity to Angel's own life and the goings-on at the agency and, rather too late in the game to add much by way of intrigue, turn cloak-and-daggery.

The novel's suspense -- that is, Ginsberg's novel -- consists primarily in puzzling out the identity of the anonymous novelist, which readers will find neither particularly difficult nor particularly compelled to do; the stakes are simply too low, which is an issue for the book as a whole. Little hangs in the balance here but the insipid professional fate of characters about whom readers will be hard-pressed to care, not because they're unlikable but because they're unreal, lacking the dimension or nuance required even of fiction that (unlike Ginsberg's) aims only to entertain. Angel is a textbook ingenue, pure of heart and luminous in her integrity, without flaw or depth. Lucy's evil-employer antics may very well be drawn from real life (it has been suggested that this is a roman a clef), but their cartoonish depiction defies suspension of disbelief.

The genre need not look like this. Consider the brilliance of Michael Tolkin's "The Player" (and his film adaptation of same), a sort of proto-Assistant Lit novel that deftly weaves elements of metafiction, elegantly restrained farce and good, old-fashioned noir into an incisive sendup of the movie industry.

Ginsberg, a noted memoirist and clearly an intelligent writer with a terrific sense of fun, has similar ambitions, for which she should be applauded. Unfortunately, those literary aims are undermined by burlesque impulses. Instead of the razor-sharp and shadow-subtle observations and characterizations that distinguish successful satire, "Blind Submission" is all travesty and caricature, a portrait obscured by its own broad strokes.

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