Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review: Susan Shapiro's Speed Shrinking

Susan Shapiro's Speed Shrinking effortlessly zips through a summer in the life of Manhattan self-help author Julia Goodman. Shapiro -- also a Manhattan self-help author who talks and thinks fast -- is in her metier right here, right now, using the present tense. This story is Julia’s psychological quest to find a balance between love and success. The story, though fiction, has many of the same themes found in Susan Shapiro’s other books – addiction, friendship, love, psychoanalysis. Julia has also inherited addictive genes from her father; her mother, an orphan, shows her family love by overfeeding.

Julia's downtown Manhattan world undergoes kaleidoscopic change at the start of the book. So much takes place in Julia's life between July 14 and September 19. After the three anchors of Julia's life -- her best friend, "Sutty," her therapist, Dr. Ness, and her husband, Jake, the television writer -- leave town at the same time ("triple pillar desertion," she calls it, in the book's opening chapter, no less), right before the publication of her book. On top of trying to slim down by her book's publication date (September 20th), Julia Goodman is tasked by Susan Shapiro with finding her own center. Julia finds herself speed shrinking through eight different therapists in eight days, as well as – for good measure -- eight different Overeaters Anonymous meetings in another eight days. It is sort of a comic Medieval Passion Play with addictions, and a "(Julia) Goodman" instead of an Everyman.

There is a wonderful comic aspect to the kaleidoscopic change that Susan Shapiro handles well. She'll have you know, for example, that her Greenwich Village neighborhood has the highest concentration of American Psychological Association members. And Julie, it seems, find that to be a reason to try as many of them as she can. Some of Shapiro's best lines come from her acute sense of the absurdity of therapy. Julia agrees to see "Dr. Cigar," her therapist's protegee as a possible replacement after Dr. Ness has left:

"Protege -- a blond, stocky guy who looks my age -- leads me inside. I notice a cheesy painting of daisies on the wall where an old fashioned bronze ship clock with a barometer used to hang.

"'Since Ness left, my husband's been working out west, my best friend moved to Cleveland, and I've been eating more,' I confess, trying not to stare at the hideous white flowers.

"'Why is that a problem,' he asks.

"'I'm gaining weight and at the same time I'm finishing a book on conquering my food addiction. It's due in three months. They could cancel the project,' I explain. 'I need to slim down by the pub date so I can promote it and it does as well as my last book.'

"'None of that will make you happy,' Protegee declares, crossing his beefy arms.

"'What are you, a Buddhist?' I guess.

"He nods yes.

"'Did your kid paint the daisies?' I can't help but ask.

"'They're Lillie's,'" he snaps. 'From an antique fair.'

"When I get home I email Dr. Ness, "Your protegee's a pudgy Zen hypocrite with bad taste in art. Meanwhile, Mr. Antimaterialist is charging two hundred dollars for forty five unenlightened minutes.'

"'Email him your negative reaction directly,' Dr. Ness promptly suggests, suddenly more interested. 'And then forward me his response.'

"Just where I don't want to be -- in the middle of a subconscious pissing contest between Freud and Jung."

Dr. Ness is a figure of intense paternal affection, an addiction. Julia is searching the therapy process for the perfect paternal relationship she never quite had with her father. Julia also has a strong moral sense of therapy etiquette. And very exacting standards. This is the source of Julia’s sense of humor about the whole process. It also makes it hard for any shrink to measure up to Julia’s idealization of the father figure. It is like Julia is searching for the ultimate father figure -- God -- in therapy. Overcoming a betrayal by the vaunted Dr. Ness, which surfaces at a pivotal moment in the book, becomes a great obstacle to Julia’s progress in her quest.

And we want Julia Goodman to progress. But it isn't always so heavy. Cupcakes, we cannot fail to, threaten to divert Julia's from her quest:

Thursday night, after Jake leaves a message he'll be late so I shouldn't wait up, instead of feeling sad, I'm elated. I check out the web site for Crumbs cupcakes to see if they're still open, all ready to relapse. Alas, the store closes at eight. but wait -- many more entries pop up: Cupcake Crazy, Bit-Size Buttercups, Cheeks Cupcakery, Kickass Cupcakes, Mini Cake Momma, Confetti Cuties, and Let 'Em Eat Little Cakes, which boasts "all cupcakes all the time," with recipes, confessions, four color paraphernalia." Oh my gosh. Here's the beauty of the internet. I'm not alone with my fetish. I've accidentally stumbled upon the underworld of cupcake porn.

The cupcake addiction couldn't have come at a worse time. Julia Goodman is about to embark on a national tour to plug her new book about conquering sugar addiction. On the pub date, she will take her “sugarless vows," but until then cupcakes – and the paparazzo who would snap the sugar addiction guru in the act of consumption – are her Kryptonite. A lot of the comedy in Speed Shrinking -- and this is a very funny book -- comes from the almost paranoiac sense of all the media forms, New and Old, that follow our every exploit in the course of modern life. Susan Shapiro is just as sophisticated in rendering social networking in all its glorious paranoiac absurdity as she is at satirizing therapy:

Lori, who calls herself my "right hand webbie" has been instructing me to approve all "friend requests" of people who appear sane, so I soon have tens of thousands of pals I've never seen on MySpace, friendster, LinkedIn, and Facebook. On Saturday, along with webstalking myself to check the paperback Up In Smoke's Amazon numbers (I'm 284), I visit the social networking sites to publicize my readings and seminars and gauge my popularity hourly. The bombardment of friendship inquiries from around the globe make me feel hip and happening.

"On Sunday Amy McNally, my biggest Facebook "friend" -- more like obsessive groupie -- posts on my wall that she attended every one of my events when she lived in New York, though I barely remember her. She's starting a fan club in her new home of Tuscon, Arizona -- launching GoodmanGirl, her blog about me. She links all of my podcasts and TV and radio appearances, and posts pictures of herself wearing T-shirts with my adages: 'Believe Your Pain,' 'Get Real and Feel,' 'Don't Light It, Fight It,' Say No to Substances & Yes to Yourself.'

Julia Goodman, our modern day Odysseus, is game for psychological adventure. She explores the world of Overeaters Anonymous. Her speed shrinking leads to impromptu visits to Twelve Step programs:

"At midnight on West Houston, forty people gather on folding chairs in a ramshackle theater. More men than at the other meetings, a mix of poor looking whites, blacks, and Latinos. So there are more male drinkers and more female overeaters. Do alcoholics drink instead of eat? A few aren't sober. One's asleep. A guy rushes in, plugs in his cell phone in the corner, then leaves.

"He just needs to recharge," Haley explains.

"Hi, I'm Arnold, a drunk and a crackhead," one shares.

Another says, "I'm Terry and I have seventeen fucking years sober."

"Man, this shit works," someone responds.

Susan Shapiro's book leaves us on the eve of the publication of Julia Goodman's book. It is now September. The air is crisp. The publication date is here. Does Julia make her publication weight (a fit and trim 128 pounds)? Does everything work out for Julia Goodman in the end? "Independence used to be my goal," Julia Goodman thinks to herself as she takes a walk around the neighborhood with her husband on the evening before the publication date. "But I've come to believe the struggle of life is actually finding the right people to walk beside you." The book ends as Julia Goodman walks up to the sign-in at NBC's Rockefeller Center offices. One of the great things about this book is the fact that Julia is a supremely likable person. It is fun to take the journey through Julia's summer. And, best of all, at the end you somehow know that Julia’s going to be all right.

Speed Shrinking is on sale now.

1 comment:

T. Connolly Walkr said...

Hey Ron:
I really loved your review of Susan Shapiro's SPEED SHRINKING book. You nailed it!

I've been to some of those wild Twelve-Step meetings that were on Julia Goodman's speed meeting list.

And when Julia/Susan asks in her novel, "Do alcoholics drink instead of eat?" I nodded my head "yes" while reading. When I quit alcohol and drugs (deliverance in my case), my sugar addiction kicked into overdrive. Only fruit could calm me down.

And some of Julia Goodman's speed shrinking encounters were hilarious. Back in L.A., one of the few times I could afford a Beverly Hills psychiatrist, he would get a faraway look and spend 20-30 of 50 precious minutes saying, "That reminds me of the time...." It was very Hollywood and very surreal. I ended up counselling him and feeling better about myself! Mission accomplished.

Once again very Julia/Sue-like, where Julia helped her New York shrinks as much as they helped her.

Again Ron, a super perceptive and well-written review of Susan Shapiro's SPEED SHRINKING!

-Tory Connolly Walker, author of the upcoming book: MISS BRICK HOUSE: A MEMOIR OF MOTOWN, MONEY, MEN AND MADNESS.