Clements, Marcelle 1948-
CLEMENTS, Marcelle 1948-
PERSONAL: Born February 17, 1948, in Paris, France; brought to the United States, 1958; naturalized citizen, 1963; daughter of Leon and Chaja Ruchla (Hechtman) Kleinwecksler; married John Clements, 1968 (divorced, 1972); children: one son. Education: Bard College, B.A. (music), 1969.
CAREER: Writer. Paris Metro (biweekly, bi-cultural newspaper), Paris, France, writer and contributing editor, until 1978. Trustee, Bard College, 1989, and Corporation of Yaddo; fellow, New York Institute for the Humanities, New York University.
MEMBER: PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, National Writers Union.
AWARDS, HONORS: New York University Institute for the Humanities fellowship, 1992.
The Dog Is Us and Other Observations (essays), Viking (New York, NY), 1985.
Rock Me (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1988.
The Improvised Woman: Single Women ReinventingSingle Life (nonfiction), Norton (New York, NY), 1998.
Midsummer (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor to periodicals, including Rolling Stone, New York Times, Washington Post, Ms., Newsday, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and Village Voice.
SIDELIGHTS: Journalist and novelist Marcelle Clements often writes about recent cultural changes in America and about the lives of characters who are entering mid-life. Influenced by such writers as Emile Zola and Honore de Balzac, her novels Rock Me and Midsummer are character-driven works that convey much of their stories through dialogue. Her nonfiction books, too, explore issues of social and emotional change.
Clements's first book, The Dog Is Us and Other Observations, collects articles the author wrote for such publications as Rolling Stone and Village Voice. In these pieces, she looks at her own generation—the baby boomers—and traces its ideological progression from the 1960s through the 1980s. According to Martin Kirby in New York Times Book Review, the "writings move obsessively between [the] Golden Age and the leaden present" to lament what Clements views as a "loss of intensity, purpose and fulfillment." Citing her essay titled "The Rise of the Mutant Elite," Kirby noted that Clements perceives humanity "as being in a perpetual class war, not the Marxist one between the haves and the have-nots but the one between the kind, sensitive people and the others."
In her title article, Clements examines reasons for the decrease in marijuana usage since the sixties and for the increased popularity of anti-depressants and psychotherapy. Gone are the days, she says, when young people used to sit around, stoned, and laugh at the utter ridiculousness of the pet dog. She suggests that the Eighties' focus on pragmatism, career ambitions, and material gains has destroyed one's ability to relax and enjoy life's simple pleasures. "Now that we're in our mid-thirties," she writes, "what often happens when we get high is that we see the dog again, but now the dog is us. And it's not funny." Nancy Wigston, commending The Dog Is Us for the Toronto Globe and Mail, stated that "nowhere does the distance traveled by a once-committed generation show itself more clearly." Wigston further observed that, as is representative of her generation, Clements tends to be "obsessively self-referential," but that she is also unusually "witty and articulate."
As Clements explained in the introduction to her book, alienation is a central theme in her articles: "The people I'm speaking of are an increasingly alienated minority. I know their alienation because they are my friends, and they are the people I like to write about. I don't really ever feel comfortable, or safe, with the others. The others frighten me, because I know that among them are those who are capable of callousness, of cruelty, and sometimes of atrocity to defend what they believe they belong to or what belongs to them, and those who will commit any act, no matter how ruthless, to be sure to stay on the winning side. I prefer the other side, though it only occasionally wins. In my writing, what I like to do best is to try to convey pictures from this other side." Clements added that she does not consider alienation to be a necessarily depressing subject. "At least, it's from a struggle against the status quo, and therefore, in my view, ultimately an expression of hope."
Clements's first novel, Rock Me, can be viewed as a fictional treatment of the themes explored in The Dog Is Us. The main character is Casey, a rock star approaching her forties who is feeling the long-term effects of her early, wild lifestyle. Trying to escape from her life, she takes a trip to Hawaii, where she meets former band-mate Michael and his girlfriend, Leslie. Both Michael and Casie find it difficult to escape their demons while in each other's presence, and Casie, who has always had a difficult time with personal relationships, finds herself lusting after the unavailable Michael. Clements "writes convincingly about the rock and roll subculture's narcissism and offers provocative meditations on love, jealousy and the differences between the '60s and the '80s," concluded Kim Hubbard in a People Weekly review, calling the novel "a very promising debut."
Although Clements planned on following Rock Me with another novel right away, her next published work was The Improvised Woman: Single Women Reinventing Single Life, in which she interviewed over one hundred single women to discuss their views about what it is like to be an unmarried woman in modern America. Her subjects ranged in age from their twenties to their nineties, and included single, widowed, divorced, and never-married women. Some had children; others did not. As Claire Rayner noted in her New Statesman review, the book shows that, compared to earlier generations, single women today are more likely to be unmarried by choice rather than widowhood. But while Rayner hoped that Clements would argue for an optimistic message that women no longer need men in their lives in order to feel fulfilled, instead the reviewer felt "disappointed" by the book's disorganization, which in her view conveys no strong single thesis. "It is messy, disorganized and shapeless," Rayner attested, adding that "the text is sprinkled with comments that aspire towards significance but are actually banal." Other reviewers of The Improvised Woman, however, found the book enlightening. A Publishers Weekly contributor, noting that Clements is a single mother herself, called the book a "well-grounded, seven-year study, which is sure to be much quoted." Library Journal contributor Elizabeth Goeters said the book is useful because it illustrates how attitudes have changed about marriage: "This is one of the most significant cultural changes of the twentieth century." And Mary Carroll asserted in Booklist that The Improvised Woman is a "lively, provocative analysis of a genuinely new social phenomenon."
Clements admitted to Robert Birnbaum in Identity Theory that she tackled The Improvised Woman, which took seven years of research and writing to complete, largely because she needed the income while she worked on her second novel. "I needed to support myself . . . but in the end, even financially, it was actually disastrous for me. I balked at writing The Improvised Woman, so then I took a long time [writing it]. I spent the advance and I had to do journalism to support the other book. It was insane, and I would never do that again."
Clements's next novel, Midsummer, focuses on some of the same themes in The Improvised Woman. The book, according to Clements in a Harcourt Books online interview, aims "to catch or evoke the moment of the year and also in people's lives when everything seems at its most ripe and beautiful, just before it all turns." Midsummer involves six friends from New York City who are all single and, for the most part, in their forties. They converge at a temporarily vacated mansion on the Hudson River for the summer at the invitation of Susie Diamond, a clothing designer who has rented the estate. What follows is an unhurried examination of the lives of these people and their relationships, which are seasoned with sexual tensions that are rarely played out. The characters include Ron, who works as a comedian; Dodge, who is Susie's former lover; Kay, who has suffered a miscarriage; Elise, an artist who has struggled but whose time in the sun may be arriving; and Susie's twenty-three-year-old son, Billy. All the characters are rather self-involved, some to the point of near insanity, which leads the plot toward a startling conclusion.
Birnbaum commented that Midsummer has the feel of "a New York book," to which Clements replied: "I think what you say is true, but it also can be thought of as a very French book translated into English. There is a lot of surface language play . . . [and] you can understand the references or just watch the play. I don't think you need to understand all the references. It's a surface and what's going on underneath the dialogue, which I hope emanates from it very clearly, is more important than the specifics. These are characters who obviously are much invested in understanding what is going on in the culture. Even though that inevitably leads them to see that they understand nothing." She continued, "Sometimes I have the fantasy of writing what would be like the Balzac books or the Zola books, a series of interlocking novels about New York and in fact there is a character from my first novel who makes an appearance in this novel, though it's not indicated. They are very much New Yorkers and part of what I was interested in describing was New York."
While some critics appreciated Clements's leisurely stroll amongst these New Yorkers, others could not find a point to the whole exercise. "After a while all this self-pitying navel-gazing by a bunch of self-absorbed New Yorkers gets wearying," complained Wilda Williams in Library Journal. Other reviewers, however, enjoyed the ride. Vina Passaro, writing in O, the Oprah Magazine, described Midsummer as a "fine, graceful" novel, while Booklist contributor Deborah Donovan proclaimed that the author "has brilliantly transported a Gatsby-like cast into the twenty-first century." The comment by Donovan was quite observant, as Clements herself told the interviewer for Harcourt Books, "When I first began work on this book, I re-read The Great Gatsby and originally I had in mind a first-person novel in which the narrator would be describing another, seemingly more attractive person."
As a writer of the baby boomer generation, Clements has continued to be interested in the lives of people in their middle age in her fiction, and of the cultural changes people are living through in her nonfiction. As she told Birnbaum, "I still feel that people now in their forties and fifties and sixties still have an interesting perspective."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Clements, Marcelle, The Dog Is Us and Other Observations, Viking, (New York, NY), 1985.
Booklist, June 1, 1998, Mary Carroll, review of The Improvised Woman: Single Women Reinventing Single Life, p. 1681; April 15, 2003, Deborah Donovan, review of Midsummer, p. 1447.
Christian Science Monitor, July 22, 1998, Kirsten A. Conover, "Savoring the Single Life," p. B3.
Entertainment Weekly, July 17, 1998, review of The Improvised Woman, p. 78.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 26, 1986.
Guardian (London, England), February 12, 2000, Vera Rule, review of The Improvised Woman, p. 11.
Library Journal, January, 1989, Rosellen Brewer, review of Rock Me, p. 100; May 15, 1998, Elizabeth Goeters, review of The Improvised Woman, p. 100; June 1, 2003, Wilda Williams, review of Midsummer, p. 164.
New Statesman, May 3, 1999, Claire Rayner, review of The Improvised Woman, p. 55.
Newsweek, June 22, 1998, Laura Shapiro, "Table for One, Please," p. 81.
New Yorker, August 3, 1998, Daphne Merkin, review of The Improvised Woman, p. 74.
New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1986; February 26, 1989, Margot Mifflin, review of Rock Me, p. 34; July 26, 1998, Lynn Karpen, review of The Improvised Woman, p. 18.
O, the Oprah Magazine, May, 2003, Vina Passaro, "A Midsummer Night's Novel," p. 188.
People Weekly, March 6, 1989, Kim Hubbard, review of Rock Me, p. 20.
Publishers Weekly, April 6, 1998, review of The Improvised Woman, p. 63.
Rolling Stone, April 20, 1989, review of Rock Me, p. 26.
Washington Post, January 25, 1987.
Women's Review of Books, September, 1998, Deborah Solomon Reid, review of The Improvised Woman, p. 15.
Harcourt Books Web site,http://www.harcourtbooks.com/ (October 22, 2003), "Interview with Marcelle Clements."
Identity Theory,http://www.identitytheory.com/ (September 9, 2003), Robert Birnbaum, "Marcelle Clements: Author of Midsummer Talks with Robert Birnbaum."
Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/books (August 19, 1998), Carolyn McConnell, review of The Improvised Woman,.*