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Our Violent National Game

The great hockey debate continues

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

Blond Bombshells

A selective, violent epidemic exposes our obsession with beauty’s dark roots

Barbara Sibbald

The Blondes

Emily Schultz

Doubleday Canada

391 pages, softcover

ISBN: 9780385671057

Blondes may have more fun, but in The Blondes, the satirical novel from Emily Schultz, they pay a hefty price: their sanity and their lives. Blondes—both bottle- and gene-based—are susceptible to a mysterious virus that turns the women into blond bombshells, with rabies-like symptoms that induce them to murder and mayhem. It is not a pretty sight, but it makes for highly entertaining reading.

It begins with our hapless heroine, Hazel Hayes, pregnant and abandoned at an Ontario cottage, recounting the story of her predicament to her fetus. Hazel had moved from Toronto to New York City to write her thesis on “what women look like and what we think they look like.” It is related to a new field of study called aesthetology (the study of looking), which “began when the Harvard School
of anthropology created an advanced course of studies in partnership with Empire Beauty Schools as a way to increase female enrolment in the sciences.”

And so the hilarity begins. Hazel’s pregnancy is the result of an “ugly” affair with her married professor and advisor, Karl Mann (who had changed his surname from Diclicker). While in New York, Hazel witnesses the ground zero event in the pandemic. Following a failed attempt to obtain an abortion, Hazel flees home to Toronto, embarking on a series of pandemic-related misadventures, and ultimately winding up at Karl’s cottage, with his wife for company. Part mystery, part dystopia, this page-turner prods the dark underbelly of our beauty-obsessed culture.

The plot brings to mind the 1989 film Batman, in which the villainous Joker chemically alters cosmetic and hygiene products, so that certain combinations cause people to laugh themselves to death. In other words: beauty-obsession death.

Schultz’s previous satirical dystopia, Heaven Is Small, was likewise amusing and dark. Schultz is a serious literary contender. Heaven was shortlisted for the 2010 Trillium Book Award, her short fiction, Black Coffee Night, was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award for Best First Fiction, and Songs for the Dancing Chicken was a finalist for the 2008 Trillium Prize for Poetry. Her novel Joyland spawned a much-lauded short-fiction, online hub. The Blondes may well follow a similar trajectory of success.

Academia has had a heyday with our obsession with physical beauty, mostly fingering patriarchal underpinnings. But in The Blondes, women’s “stupid dreams” are the impetus for disaster. Women compete with one another in a constant game of beauty one-up(wo)manship, the ultimate goal being power. As Hazel’s New York thesis advisor opines, beauty brings “flattery, attention, sexual attention, power and, with power money.” Blondes are our beauties, and so women dye their hair in droves. But in The Blondes their beauty makes them uniquely vulnerable to an infectious disease; our beauties go insane and lose their humanity. Their power, like their beauty, is transient. The blondes are only one bad facelift, one decade, one weird pandemic away from losing their power … and worse.

The dystopia intensifies with society’s response to a pandemic. Science and medicine are impotent; the only protection is immunization by Clairol. Public health also takes a rap. Exposed or vulnerable people are not quarantined. Women who had been herded into an isolation camp are arbitrarily grouped such that it is merely chance that determines who contracts the virus and who does not.

In some respects, this is a cautionary tale, with echoes of the 2011 Hollywood film Contagion. But unlike the film, which is scarily serious, The Blondes pokes fun at our fears. The capitalists head in for the kill, shilling snake oil such as “Blonde-Away and Blonde-Off.” A sex columnist coins the phrase “blonde-backing”:

men who would pay ridiculous rates to have sex with blonde women. Sometimes they asked the women to perform as if they were crazy, sometimes to play dead, sometimes just to be their own “blonde and beautiful” selves. Just a few tricks would pay for a full semester at even an Ivy League school.

Hazel, our first-person narrator and front-line observer, is neither blond nor beautiful. But she is a scholar of beauty and was raised at the altar: her mother is a beautician and skilled colourist who believes that women are motivated by the three Ms: “Men, Money, and More men and money.” Given Hazel’s expertise and what she has witnessed, she will inevitably be called upon to tell her story and explain the seemingly inexplicable.

The Blondes also delves into the complex nature of women’s relationships. Hazel has an uneasy friendship with the beautiful, blond Larissa. She is a catty, self-absorbed pal, who, among her numerous transgressions, gives Hazel a photo of the two of them showing Larissa at her most beautiful and Hazel at her least. Perhaps it is this relationship that has soured Hazel’s view. In the isolation camp, Hazel decides she does not “believe that there is a bond between all women … that sisterhood is powerful.” She believes the opposite: “that these women were simply in the right circumstances to be kind.” In other words, in the absence of men, they do not have to be competitive. Yet Hazel seems ambivalent. She later laments the change in her friendship with Larissa. And in
the ultimate test of her friendship theory, Karl’s wife, Grace Pargetter, who has every reason to hate Hazel, proves to be her saviour. Then again there are no men around. These musings are provoking, but inconclusive, leaving this reader longing for more.

Indisputably, the “Blonde Fury” pandemic is a wildly improbable premise. As a medical editor, I wanted to know how it could be possible, but then my fiction-writer-self protested. Authors are not obliged to explain the nitty gritty of the how. All a fiction writer really needs to pull off a fantastical plot is a reliable narrator, bolstered by a healthy dose of verisimilitude. Therein lies my sole complaint with this otherwise compelling novel. If Hazel thinks amniotic fluid is composed of blood, why would I believe anything she says? Then there is the bird’s egg on the first of March—a tad early even given climate change. Is Larissa pregnant before or after her wedding? And just how many months pregnant is Hazel? On page four, we learn the fetus weighs seven pounds—nearly full term—and this raises the spectre of an unassisted birth and
concern and impatience over her inaction. Then on page 145, we learn that she is actually only seven months pregnant. Seven months with a seven-pound fetus? Good luck with delivering that bruiser! In isolation, these are minor points, taken together, they instil doubt.

It is easy to forgive though, because Schultz is a wonderful writer with a penchant for the pithy phrase: “She had big, neat bubble penmanship, the kind that popular girls have in tenth grade” … “I learned to say it Tronna like everyone else, like something slick that you slip on walking down the street. Like dog shit.” Describing her hometown, she writes: it was “in Windsor, a city that was like a grubby-kneed little sister to Detroit, a working-class town where sloppy unions transpired in alleys after last call and people looked the other way.”

Make no mistake, The Blondes is a rollicking, compelling read. But like all satire, there is a message in the mockery. Worshipping physical beauty comes at a price. Like Hazel, Schultz is an astute observer, well versed in the art of seeing. And this novel is that rare hybrid: both entertaining and thought provoking.

Barbara Sibbald is a journalist and fiction writer. She gardens in Ottawa.