By Debra Ginsberg
BOOKS/CROWN; 328 Pages; $23.95
"Blind Submission" isn't the best book I've ever read, but it may be the most cinematic. From its spunky opening sentence, "It was the first minute of my first day and my first impulse was to run" (can't you just hear Lindsay Lohan intoning that in a voiceover?), to its here's-how-everyone-turned-out codas, Debra Ginsberg's first novel gives the impression of having been written with an eventual movie version sharply in mind.
But unlike other recent books about the resilient acolyte who toils under, then triumphs over the boss from hell, "Blind" is conspicuously the product of a seasoned author (of the well-received memoirs "Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress," "Raising Blaze: Bringing Up an Extraordinary Son in an Ordinary World" and "About My Sisters").
Ginsberg's original twists freshen up the familiar tale. The devil here"carnivorous" Bay Area literary agent Lucy Fiammadoesn't wear Prada, but rather "a peculiar combination of clothing: white capri pants, a lime green cable-knit sweater, and a red leather belt. The whole outfit was finished off with black leather flats. All the separate pieces were of very good quality, yet they were just wrong together." A less chic monster than Miranda Priestly, then, Lucy remains monstrous nonetheless, with a mercurial temperament to match her unpredictable fashion choices. But her Kafkaesque illogic can make her seem more crazy than cruel, less a tough, savvy leader than a petulant child. And as Lucy's stalwart underling-caretaker-foil we have our heroine, the unsubtly named Angel Robinson.
The satirical "Blind" is also a thriller, with its anonymous writer, "G.A. Novelist" (G.A. stands, of course, for Great American), blindly submitting installments of a novel, reflexively titled "Blind Submission." Despite its tumescent style ("he plowed her like a ripe field ... honeyed fires coursed through her body"), the book-within-the-book compellingly reveals itself to be imitating, even predicting, lifelife at a literary agency, and, progressively, Angel's life in particular. The parallels are made too much ofG.'s protagonist, for instance, is manipulative and self-serving, while Angel lives up to her name (more on that laterbut the suspense builds as the e-mails arrive at ever more eerily apt moments, and each character at one point or other could feasibly be G. (I guessed right by Page 187, but wasn't sure until Ginsberg was good and ready for me to be).
Unfortunately, "Blind's" major flaw is its central character. As Angel rightly notes, a protagonist must be sympathetic for a novel to work, but when she leaves a comfortable job at the fictitious Blue Moon bookstore in Corte Madera (probably modeled after the real-life Book Passage) for the fast track of becoming a literary agent, Angel is universally adored to an unbelievable, and therefore grating, degree. Lucy, as maddening as she is, respects and handsomely rewards Angel's innate knack for the book biz; Damiano, the hot new Italian author with a six-figure book deal (thanks to Angel), is smitten with her; Karanuk, the curt, reclusive writer of runaway best-seller "Cold!," gushes after a brief phone conversation, "you know how a writer thinks." The problem is that Ginsberg traps Angel in the first-person voice. The accolades would have been more digestible as conveyed by an omniscient narrator, with the freedom of perspective. But, here, Angel is forced to describe herself, which can lend her an uncharacteristic self-congratulatory tone: "I was surprised by how easily the work came to me. It was as if I knew, instinctively, which words to move around and shave off to uncover the picture." The first-person voice also makes the sex scenes seem indulgent and claustrophobic.
Speaking of sex, what's with the persistent frisson between the devil and her Angel? Lucy emerges from her office wearing only a towel (which then falls); she repeatedly sits so close to Angel that they touch; Angel's wannabe-writer boyfriend, Malcolm, teases, "I think you turn her on, Angel"; and Angel finally realizes that Lucy regards her "with interest so intense it bordered on lust." This tension, never explained or resolved, ends up a red herring. However, Angel's escalating psychic connection with Lucy, to the point of viscerally adopting her boss' fear of flying, works: "I was thinking exactly like Lucy. It was as if she'd beamed the thoughts straight into my brain." And Angel's long-awaited breakoutrejecting Lucy's plan, en route to a posh New York salon, to have her assistant cut and colored in her own imageis the beginning of the boisterous end (just as I was starting to wonder why someone as bright as Angel would succumb to such blind submission).
Ginsberg may occasionally resort to clichés or echo her mystery novelist's overwrought language, but the industry send-ups are chucklers, like a pitch letter for a 527-page cookbook co-written with the author's cat, Hairy, and a bookstore owner overhearing a student ask for "a book by Victor Hugo called 'Less Miserable'" and the clerk respond, "Uh, I've never heard of it. But why don't you try the self-help section?" And hey, the rest can be smoothed out in the screenplay. In the meantime, Ginsberg makes a lively jump from memoir to fiction with this witty, rollicking ride.
Sarah Saffian, a writing professor at the New School, is the author of "Ithaka: A Daughter's Memoir of Being Found."