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Success and the Single Girl


When Christensen is not writing in her Greenpoint studio, the lithe, dark-haired author moonlights as a soap-opera star -- albeit a low-rent public-access soap opera filmed in a friend's living room. This is not her first foray into city-sponsored cable: An endless string of temp jobs included a stint reading (and writing) phone-sex scripts for Channel J. "I specialized in incest," she notes. She began her novel over three years ago, while she worked as a secretary at a Japanese bank. At first, she desperately hammered her prose into what she labels "confessional serious American fiction": "I remember trying to drudge up anything. But I wasn't abused. I was never anorexic. If I showed an interest in science, my mother was right there with the chemistry set."

Christensen says she quickly grew "sick of that self-seriousness. But I didn't really see a lot of books out there until Bridget Jones that had a tone and worldview that was just like mine. I was reacting against political correctness, Alcoholics Anonymous. I love to drink! I think there's a kind of moralizing in those books that I consciously reacted against."

Like her contemporaries, she infuses her work with bawdy detail and cutting humor, traits that are a welcome change for readers who've suffered through the decade's most recent literary trend: ponderous, weepy memoirs like Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation and Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story. "Look at how violently people responded to The Kiss," says Roth's literary agent, Elizabeth Sheinkman, referring to Kathryn Harrison's memoir about her four-year sexual affair with her father. "That was the apex of the memoir trend. People became fed up with the role of the victim. The independent spunky creature seems much more appealing."

Christensen's novel is an artful chronicle of a frustrated writer, Claudia, who finds herself light-years from where she expected she'd be. (She even has a dysfunctional relationship with her cat.) But Claudia doesn't let her problematic obsessions veer into self-pity. Instead, she ponders electrocuting her psychotic boss in the bath and drinks vodka like it's diet Snapple. As for the feminist standard-bearers who find Bridget Jones (and by extension her sister heroines) too frivolous, Christensen heartily disagrees: "We're past the point where we have to prove we're worthy by taking ourselves seriously. Feminism has brought us to the point where we can make fun of our weight. The time has come for women to be funny."

Perhaps the most buzzed-about beneficiary of the Bridget boom is Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, which is not a straight novel but a collection of interlocking short stories. Although they seem to be having a small renaissance, collections are known to be consistent money losers and a tough sell. Bank's stories, however, came with solid, savvy prose, a snappy title, and built-in momentum. The title story was originally commissioned by Francis Ford Coppola for Zoetrope: All-Story, his literary magazine. Coppola, who also commissioned Bank to draft a screenplay of the story, wondered what it would be like if someone followed The Rules, the oft-reviled how-to guide for snaring a husband.

In "Girls' Guide," Bank's heroine attempts to employ the so-called wisdom of a book entitled How to Meet and Marry Mr. Right to snag a buff bachelor she meets at her best friend's wedding. Throughout the narrative, the how-to book's bouncy authors materialize as characters, dispensing unhelpful advice on the rules of courtship. "Melissa really made this idea her own," says Coppola. "It could have been superficial or glib, but she took the opportunity to make it personal." So personal that Jane Rosenal, her affable main character, is a ringer for Bank. "Obviously, I feel some of the same things," she says. "Somebody should give you a guidebook to life. The wisdom we have is woefully inadequate."

At Cal's Restaurant & Bar in the Flatiron on a balmy spring evening, Bank, dressed in an all-black ensemble, is chain-smoking Merit 100s and drinking red wine as the after-work singles scene rages on around her. Everyone is eating oysters. Bank, who is 37 and single, grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs. She got her M.F.A. at Cornell, and after floundering for a while in various assistant jobs in publishing, she set her sights on magazines.

"I had an interview at the New Republic," she recalls, "so I decided it would be a good idea to read an issue. There was one cool article, but other than that, I was totally lost. Some people grow up in an intellectual environment. I am not one of them. The only thing I can debate fluently is the evolution of hairstyles." Instead, she lived with her mother and took the train to a temp job at a bank. "I wore my floral dress from high school," she remembers. "That's when you have a sense of yourself falling off the world."

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