How to Build a Girl
Ebury, 343pp, £14.99
When How to Be a Woman appeared three years ago, it was like the turning over of fresh soil. Here, in a blend of memoir and polemic, was the new feminism: buoyant, transgressive and up for a fight, “rugby style, face down in the mud with lots of shouting”. Caitlin Moran, a gobby journalist from an overcrowded council house in Wolverhampton who began writing for the Times as a teenager, had caught the spirit of the age: feminism was about being treated with politeness and equality, and not being a feminist was like bending over and saying, “Kick my arse and take my vote, please, patriarchy.” Along with everyone else I punched the air as I read her book. With Moran in the driving seat, we could relax about showing the way ahead for our girls.
There was only one problem, which seemed unimportant at the time but signalled the car crash to come. Although Moran had a clear sense of her own direction, she never looked in the rear-view mirror. Before Lady Gaga felt free to shoot fireworks from her bra, there was some groundwork done by the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, Virginia Woolf and Betty Friedan, but Moran wrote as if the world was born the day she came into it. Feminism, her younger readers might think, was something she alone constructed, brick by brick, on foundations she herself laid down. In that sense, it is appropriate that her first novel is called How to Build a Girl, but a better title might be How to Make a Fast Buck.
A coming-of-age tale about a gobby journalist from an overcrowded council house in Wolverhampton who starts writing for a music paper as a teenager, How to Build a Girl comes with a level of hype otherwise reserved for Philip Roth. Added to which it is being promoted by a “rock’n’roll literary tour”. Those in the mosh pit expecting a rabble-rousing feminist anthem will be disappointed: the only F-words are fucking and fags, and Moran has nothing whatsoever to say about girls or how to build them. Apart from the heroine, there are no girls to be found in the threadbare plot, unless you count the bit parts played by her washed-out mother, nasty cousin and a sexual rival called Emilia. Any character roles are given to the men, who also have all the best lines.
Otherwise there is very little difference between Moran the novelist, who says “cunt” a lot, who “gets her freak on” over cartoon characters and describes the state of her mouth after giving a blow job, and Moran the journalist, who does all the same things. How to Build a Girl is simply a hasty rehash of How to Be a Woman. Even the jokes are recycled; the only job available for Moran in Wolverhampton, she says in the first book, is a dead prostitute. The only job available for her in Wolverhampton, she says, less wittily, in the second, is as a prostitute. Except that it is not Moran but Johanna who now says it, and a disclaimer at the start of the novel stresses that “this is a work of fiction” and “Johanna is not me”.
Who, indeed, would want to be Johanna? Even Johanna doesn’t want to be Johanna, so she gives herself the nom de plume Dolly Wilde, demon journalist. Being in the company of Johanna or Dolly for 343 pages is like being pinned to the wall by a bore at a party, who guffaws at her own gags, boasts about her vagina and sees herself as a “legend”. What was once refreshing about Moran’s writing now comes across as laboured and tiresome. When we first meet Johanna she is masturbating, or “seducing herself”, and her self-adulation wavers for only a nanosecond at the end of the book, when a sexual threesome goes wrong. For those who can’t get enough of the world according to Caitlin, Channel 4 has commissioned a six-part comedy series, Raised by Wolves, written by Moran and her sister and based on their childhood.
How to Be a Woman was a celebration of all women, and How to Build a Girl is a celebration of one woman. You might argue that in our age of selfie-obsession this is what we should expect from a writer capable of defining a generation. Or you might see it as lazy and cynical. “Like all the best quests,” Johanna reflects of her experiences, “I did it all for a girl: me.”