The Clam is Marta Dzido’s first full-length book. She has done a perfect job of fitting the trends currently prevailing in young people’s fiction. However, the main value of The Clam does not lie in the plotline that focuses on the rebellion of Magda (the heroine and narrator) against the omnipresent hypocrisy and media-imposed models of consumer behaviour. What I find more meaningful is the drama taking place in the background, as if “behind the scenes” of the main story, concerning the gradual collapse of interpersonal relationships. Marta Dzido demonstrates that more and more often the defensive reaction to the problems of our times is a complete dismantling of all social ties and emotional dependencies.
The Clam consists of ten short chapters and resembles the diary of a rebellious girl of secondary school age. The Polish title, Małż, is a pun, as the word not only means “clam” but is also short for “małżonek”, meaning “husband”; according to all the indications, Magda’s fiancé Mateusz is going to be the typical modern husband. The perfect model of a modern couple usually looks like this: he is young and good looking (“a silky smooth face and lovely clean fingernails”), very well educated, employed at an advertising agency, has a bright career path ahead of him, and works eighteen hours a day; she is young and beautiful, has graduated from a prestigious faculty, knows six languages and loves her job.
However, in this novel this attractive cliché is blown apart. First of all, because of staff cuts the heroine loses her job and has the frustrating experience of being unemployed. Secondly, and much more importantly, she has a character trait that makes it very hard to function in the capitalist jungle: she often speaks the truth. The problem is that she basically doesn’t fit into the world around her; she is the piece in the social jigsaw for whom it’s hardest to find the right place within the system.
When Mateusz comes home late from the advertising agency yet again, Magda lets fly with a definitive, not altogether consoling announcement: “…it’s over, no more nice little girl, sweet and smiling, always on time with neat hair and clean clothes”. It’s true that something is over in her life, but there’s nothing new aching to get started. The only thing that does begin is the systematic demolition of her relationships with other people. First her fiancé leaves, then comes a serious crisis in her relationship with her parents, and soon after even Paweł – her old boyfriend from student days – is no longer needed as a non-committal antidote to loneliness, but as someone she can borrow money from. At several points Magda feels the pain of isolation, and with a heavy heart realises that she’s missing her fiancé. However, just like a clam, she hides in the shell of her own world and shies away from any kind of relationship.
“You call the guy and ask him if he’ll play for two weeks for that amount. You’ve got the numbers in Outlook Express so call and say you’re working for us and chat him up a bit, you know what I mean. He’s the kind of guy who was once at the top for three years, but now he’s not doing anything – he’s sure to give a different impression, but he knows we know he’s not doing anything.”
“How much is he meant to play for? Six hundred zlotys per concert?” I ask in amazement.
“Hello, will you play for six thousand?”
“Look, darling, don’t make me laugh – I’ve never got that sort of price for my concerts. Don’t you think six thousand is a bit low for an artist like me?”
“Well, I don’t know. I spend a month on the phone in a stuffy little room with no windows for eight hundred.”
“Look, baby, I’m…”
“I’m not your baby.”
“You’re not being very nice, lady. Please tell your boss it’s not a deal for me, but…”
“Now look, I’ve had a chat with him and he was shocked by your impertinence, that’s how he put it. I don’t know if you’re really suited for this sort of negotiation. You said in your CV that you’re responsible and patient; whatever the client is like, even if he’s a complete yob he’s still our client, and if we can make some money that’s what counts, not some personal abuse of yours. I’m afraid that even though you’re my friend and I like you very much, you can’t go on working here any longer because you’ll scare off all our clients.”
I pull in my stomach in front of the mirror. I pull it in at yoga. The yoga teacher notices and comes up to me, pushes my spine down and straightens my legs but even so it doesn’t come out right somehow. Sun salutations, boat pose, half boat pose – that bald one with the tattoo on the back of her neck does everything perfectly, like she’s made of rubber. I keep a furtive eye on her; the yoga teacher sees it all anyway. Sometimes he says: “In yoga you have to focus on yourself and direct your energy inwards, not watch what the others are doing…” But that bald one, she’s really it. She can do everything. Even her plank comes out right, and she can hold the pose – I fall on the floor immediately.
I pull in my stomach in front of the mirror, I look at the displays in beautiful shops, I wonder how they always manage to have immaculate white trousers, not a single wrinkle on their blouses and those nails painted with little pictures, perfectly depilated legs and not a trace of fat on their bellies, so even when they sit down nothing rolls up or goes into folds.
I just pretend I’m not getting any folds, while they laugh at me from the magazine covers and the papers, because my belly is far from being completely flat and hard, because I’ve got bitten nails and my hair’s been unevenly cut with scissors in the bath, and they keep writing me messages, saying: lose weight this summer, you’re worth it, take care of your hair, be beautiful for him. But my nail polish goes over the line every time I try; maybe my nails are too small, too short, because the polish seeps onto my skin, my eye pencil draws a crooked line, my eye spills onto the floor, and at the very thought of undercoat my whole world retreats and hides in the wardrobe, so it’s no use.
But they have contraceptive plasters that stick out from under their hipsters, from under their lacy little bras and G-strings. They’ve got immaculate skin, all one tone. They have pure and spotless dreams. Dreams washed in powder with micro-granules.
They’ve got views from the newspapers, opinions about the war – our mission is extremely important. They have a view on the subject of feminists – what’s all the fuss about? why all the protests? They have men in clean shirts and slicked-back hair. They have men with new generation mobile phones, phones that can make films and then send them by e-mail. They’ve got men in luxury cars bought on HP and on special offer, and in those cars they’ve got the fake smell of cinnamon and a radio set to 94.
They’ve got their own big problems too. How do I get rid of stretch marks? Should I buy eye cream, or cuticle remover? Why won’t two-year-old Jasio eat his porridge? Should I start bottle-feeding my six-month-old son? Are disposable nappies harmful? What does a rash behind the ear mean? What do I do with the dog if the child is allergic to its fur? Why doesn’t my husband want to be there at the birth? What’s best for brittle ends? Where do I get specialist advice? How do I get a cure for leucorrhoea? What do I do if I don’t enjoy sex? How do I get rid of dandruff? How do I write my CV? How can I get my boss’s sympathy and trust? How do I reconcile work and child rearing? How do I lose weight without the yo-yo effect? Where’s the best place to go shopping? What’ll be in fashion this spring?
How do I deal with wrinkles?
How do I deal with fat?
How do I deal with my own head?
How do I deal with myself effectively?
And those bitches are looking at me, those immaculate white women produced by Photoshop. They look at me travelling without a ticket to see someone about a job. They look at me buying a newspaper on Monday morning, they look from the magazine covers and billboards, smiling and showing a row of white teeth, telling me to be beautiful, be beautiful, be beautiful. They have pure dreams and pure thoughts, and their throats go tight as the word “dick” tries to squeeze through and cannot. There’s a dull silence when some pervert sticks his hand between their thighs on a crowded bus. They’ve nothing to say on important issues. They show their ignorance, their ignorance when they talk on screen, in a programme about fashion – why didn’t you take part in the gala for the top stars, why weren’t you invited? It’s ignorance, if you please, it’s the journalists’ ignorance.
And I’m pretending again. Pretending to be asleep. I’m lying with my eyes open, thinking how Mateusz thinks up those billboards, adverts and throwaway slogans. Even she can’t spoil it for you. It’s a way of cheating us. Tits with radio knobs. They say feminists have no sense of humour. Nor do I. I look at the billboards in the city and I think Mateusz is communicating with me through them. Be beautiful, be good, have pure thoughts and pure dreams, smile, be a fan, be trendy, have some style, girl, have some class, your hair is worth it, take a look in the flattering mirror in the elegant designer shop, how lovely, how slinky, don’t forget some light make-up, some anti-wrinkle cream for twenty-five-year-olds, a yoghurt diet, a protein diet, a one-hundred-calorie diet, two little slices of ham rolled in a lettuce leaf and some orange juice. Remember, you’ve got to hold in your stomach, keep smiling and grinning. A beautiful woman knows her place.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones