The Fine Art of Fucking Up by Cate Dicharry

Reviewed by Kailyn McCord

 

I first opened The Fine Art of Fucking Up by Cate Dicharry around Thanksgiving. I finished it on New Years Day. I usually read much faster than that, particularly when I’m reading a close, first-person, rather gripping novel about breaking points and big life questions. But much like Nina, the main character in The Fine Art of Fucking Up, my life (read: job and relationship) proved to be on rocky ground for exactly all of this holiday season, and so I spent much of my time debating my own big life questions, instead of reading. Should I be in the relationship that I’m in? Should I be in the job that I’m in? How am I going to pay my rent if answer to both of these questions is ‘no’? How am I going to be happy (and what does that even mean?) if the answer to both these questions is ‘no’?

Cate Dicharry is a reader, writer, feminist, and mother (for her thoughts on the last role, see “I Became A Mother, But Lost Myself,” published at Role Reboot). She’s also a graduate from UC Riverside’s Low Residency MFA, and from what I can tell, a talented fucker up-er indeed when it comes to the writing bit. The Fine Art of Fucking Up is her debut novel, published with Unnamed Press.

Fear not: this review is not a lament about my life falling apart (for the most part). Rather, I offer this information both illustrate how thoroughly The Fine Art of Fucking Up sucked me in, and how, like a good books tends to do, this novel operated by some kind of clairvoyant book magic: This is exactly the book you need to read right now; this is your life, but enough not your life to see it clearly. Good job. Keep reading.

At the outset of the book, Dicharry introduces us to the world of Nina, a mid-thirties administrator at the School of Visual Arts, and proceeds follow her through a series of trials which, by anyone’s standards, would test the limits of why and how one might fuck it all up. Nina’s marriage is rocky, her boss has all but disappeared behind the cover of a romance novel, and her colleagues are either falling in love with each other (and disappointingly, not with her) or have earned (in spades) restraining orders barring them from the very school at which they’re employed. At the outset of the book, Nina appears as the seemingly stable rock amidst so much chaos.

But as we know, because we too are human beings with flaws and subjective realities, no one is a rock, and it is too often the people who look most rock-ish (can I beat this metaphor a little bit longer?) who crack the most violently. So, when a massive flood threatens the School of Visual Arts building (and the immensely valuable Jackson Pollock hanging inside), Nina’s carefully balanced faux-stability begins to falter. Nina is a beautifully built character, human, flawed, which is part of what makes her unravelling so compelling. But the other part, the better part, is the manner in which Dicharry presents Nina’s unravelling; it’s uncertain, it’s unclear, and like the Facebook relationship status I’ve never seen anyone actually use, it’s terribly, terribly complicated.

And it’s this complication and nuance that allows The Fine Art of Fucking Up to be more than just a cheesy, moral tale about the essential nature of human flaws. Yes, we all have flaws, but this is news to no one. Perhaps it was partly the timing of this book (for me personally) that made Nina’s stumblings so compelling, but I hesitate to lay all the weight on Book Magic; much of it, I think, lies in the messiness of the story, particularly the climax and ending. Without sacrificing necessary literary components (like tension and arc and narrative) Dicharry lets Nina be a mess, and make a mess, with delightful, real, human complexity. There is no pivot in The Fine Art of Fucking Up, and I’m grateful for that: there’s no cheesy climax, no moment of choice, no clear this is where Nina learns her lesson and so should you moment. There is just a person, on a page, surrounded by other people, presented with difficult circumstances. In the end, she is just who she is, changed by what happened and in new circumstances, which she will (inevitably) fuck up again. Which is exactly what humans do. Which is exactly what humans are.

And so, this 2014 holiday season now over, I still have no idea what the answers to any of my questions are. Book Magic, while powerful, can’t actually give me (or, sadly, you) those answers. But what it can do (and what The Fine Art of Fucking Up did do) is offer an instance of someone fucking up, over and over and over again, and coming out the other side more or less okay. Because it’s is what we do, and no matter how many times we hear the maxim, it’s still difficult to believe, and worth repeating again: nobody knows what they’re doing, and everyone is fucking up. It is the particular way we all fuck up, and what we take from it, that shapes and changes who we are. As Nina learns, as I am learning, it’s a messy, complicated, never-sure endeavor, but it’s also a fine art worth practicing, over and over again.

 


kailynheadshot   Kailyn McCord is a writer, baker, and strident feminist. She’s lived in Oakland, Portland,   and Alaska, and is currently working on her MFA in fiction at the University of New Orleans. She lives with her co-conspirator, Cameron, and their retired Alaskan sled dog, Deviline, who doesn’t like the heat one bit.

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