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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Chambermaid: I'm Sorry I Read It

The legal blogosphere has been tittering in anticipation of Saira Rao’s alleged roman à clef, Chambermaid. Rao is a former law clerk to Judge Dolores Sloviter of the Third Circuit, and her publisher has positioned the novel as doing for judicial clerkships what The Nanny Diaries did for au pairs and The Devil Wears Prada did for fashion magazines. A plucky ingénue lands a dream job, only to discover that she is working for a madwoman. Incidents of deliciously outrageous abuse follow, their deliciousness enhanced by the thrilling possibility that some of them may actually be true.

I was particularly eager to read Chambermaid:I also clerked on the Third Circuit, and clerks being inveterate gossips, my co-clerks and I would sometimes hear juicy Judge Sloviter stories, of varying plausibility. I was curious to learn which of them had some basis in fact—or, at least, to learn which of the rumors Saira Rao had also heard. I’d also enjoyed Kermit Roosevelt’s In the Shadow of the Law and Jeremy Blachman’s Anonymous Lawyer, both of them nicely observed novels about young lawyers adrift in hilariously amoral environments, so I was hoping that Rao had added to this particular genre of legal literature. I was too optimistic.

The book is an abomination, one of the worst novels I have ever read, both artistically and morally. The affected style, which runs the gamut from “cutesy” to “bench memo,” would be forgivable if the substance weren’t so dreadful. It all comes down to characters. In the Shadow of the Law works because Roosevelt has an affectionate warmth for his falliably human characters; Anonymous Lawyer works because Blachman wholeheartedly embraces the cartoonishness of his exaggerations. Chambermaid falls in the unpleasant gap between; it features characters doing and saying things one could just about imagine real people doing and saying, for whom the reader is nonetheless expected to feel contempt.

At the center of it all is a monster—and I’m not referring to “Judge Helga Friedman.” I hope that the narrator, “Sheila Raj,” is not a stand-in for the author. Sheila is a raving narcissist, for whom all affronts are created equally annoying. Here are a few examples of what the world looks like through her dismissive eyes:

  • “Why had nobody invited me? I was wearing a cute outfit and had great hair. What was the matter?” (11)
  • “I was suddenly intrigued. A real-life lesbian! And she was my coclerk. I would actually have a lesbian friend! [My sister] had recently convinced me that lesbians were more fabulous than gay men.” (23)
  • “But even Eddie wouldn’t talk to Medieval Roy, who was sedulously watering the judge’s plants. While the mere existence of Roy was depressing enough to make a chicken want to cut its own head off, there was something particularly sad about him watering the judge’s plants. It was inexplicably extraspecial demeaning. . . . I couldn’t mask my pity.” (79)
  • “Thanks to her morning conversations with Eddie and my excellent eavesdropping skills, I was able to piece together one sad story. Janet was a devoutly religious Bible banger who spent Sundays passing around collection baskets at her church. She had moved into her parents’ house in the suburbs after a dicey divorce years earlier. While her parents were long gone, her brother was still there. Brother and Janet were in their fifties and both still single. I wondered if incest was banned by the Ten Commandments.” (81)
  • “Evan was the greatest jackass ever to have lived. It was a small wonder that some beefcake hadn’t pummeled him to death in college. As for the judge, she was most definitely insane. I couldn’t be more sympathetic to the victims of the internment, but her sheer audacity! She’d spent her day eviscerating two of her law clerks, and now she was crying for Japanese victims from five decades ago?” (92)
  • “Betsy had gone to Duke and emitted a casual, borderline pleasant vibe, a double anomaly considering most Dukies and law clerks seemed to be jerks by definition. Whereas Harvard churned out irritation, Duke manufactured arrogant monsters who were simultaneously not the brightest bulbs in the box. Mean + kind of dumb = intolerable. At first blush, Betsy seemed to have skirted Duke’s dim fate. Not to mention, she had pretty hair.” (112)
  • “‘My husband, Tom, and our dog, Linus, and I, um, live out in Wayne.’ I nodded, feigning I knew (or cared) where Wayne was. To me, suburbs were suburbs and I couldn’t be bothered with distinctions, especially because the chance of my ever going to any Philadelphia suburb was about as great as the judge ever returning from her time with [her husband] as Carol Brady.” (119)

You get the picture. Convention demands such quips of the villain, not the heroine. A pot living in a glass house would be in a better position to offer criticism.

Which brings us to the supposed point of the novel: Judges Behaving Badly. Helga Friedman is mercurial, and certainly has her share of over-the-top moments. She forbids her clerks lunch, screams over every imperfection in their work, orders them in to work in a blizzard, and literally draws blood. She throws her weight as a FEDERAL JUDGE around at every opportunity, traffic accidents particularly included. She seemingly lives for nothing more than torturing her clerks and demanding praise from all she meets.

But as the novel progresses, something odd happens. The character assassination against Judge Friedman becomes just too much. Raj’s life is pretty good, all things considered. Her hours aren’t particularly bad as clerkship hours go, the work itself is interesting enough, and while she may or may not get that dream job with the ACLU, even she acknowledges that it would be a rare accomplishment to land it. Her family loves and supports her; she always has at least one good friend nearby; she’s never threatened with any serious corruption of her values. Nor, beyond living in a slightly skeevy neighborhood, does she ever risk forfeiting her educational, economic, and social privilege. The indignities of life in Friedman’s chambers come to seem like just so much white noise, nothing one couldn’t endure for a year with a half-grin and a lot of shrugs. Which, actually, is more or less what Raj does.

In the face of Raj’s whingeing, Judge Friedman slowly but surely emerges as the most sympathetic character in the book. Her outbursts come to feel less and less like conscious statements and more and more like things she has been ordered to say for narrative expedience. The tyrant is a marionette. It’s like watching a bear-baiting or a snuff film: raw cruelty on display.

In the novel’s climax, the judge’s husband dies after long illness, and the cognitive dissonance of the grotesqquery overwhelms the putative narrative. According to Raj, Judge Friedman works all through her husband’s illness, curses out his doctors, then dragoons her clerks into organizing a shivah. The shivah scene itself is a nightmare. The judge reads a prepared speech about her husband’s archaeological work; other relatives manage to soil both themselves and Friedman’s clerks with not one but two forms of bodily waste.

By the end of this abasement, a counter-narrative has all but driven the official one from the stage. A distraught woman screams at her husband’s doctors with hopeless hope to plead for any chance to save him. When he wanders off, naked and disoriented, she is unable to deal with the pain of seeing this brilliant former scholar reduced to such a state. She throws herself into her work but can’t keep the grief from breaking through. Her family, never much given to public displays of affection, struggles awkwardly through the shivah, not knowing what to say. And her clerks are too busy flirting with each other to give the deceased’s sister an honest answer about whether the bread is wheat-free, leading directly to severe digestive trouble.

Helga Friedman is a tragic figure, a top-notch judge whose body is breaking down, increasingly alone, and tormented at every turn by a narrator intent on stripping every shred of dignity from her. Why do we need disgusted descriptions of this poor woman’s dental bridge, or her orthotic shoes, or her hairbun, or the sight of her half-clothed body, or her husband’s underwear? Chambermaid invites the reader to see a human being as physically and spiritually ugly—and then to laugh. By the end, the only humane response is to turn and walk away. Perhaps this is the response Rao wishes her readers to have, but I doubt it.

It is beside the point to ask what relationship this act of cruelty in novel form bears to reality. I stopped caring which incidents were true and which invented within a few dozen pages. The best metaphor for Chambermaid may be the very clerkship form Hell it purports to detail. I wanted very much to enjoy this novel, or, failing that, to learn from it. I did neither. Instead, I found myself counting the hours until I could put it behind me, when the degradation would at long last be over.

Posted by James Grimmelmann on June 20, 2007 at 05:57 PM in Books | Permalink

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Not to mention, who but a moron would live in even a "slightly skeevy" neighborhood in Philadelphia on a federal clerk's salary, unless they wanted to? You can live in several very nice neighborhoods, with a pretty good sized apartment, here on one. It sounds like an awful book.

Posted by: Matt | Jun 20, 2007 6:25:09 PM

{The book is an abomination, one of the worst novels I have ever read, both artistically and morally. The affected style, which runs the gamut from “cutesy” to “bench memo,” would be forgivable if the substance weren’t so dreadful.}

Ouch.

Posted by: Venkat | Jun 21, 2007 10:09:01 AM

When I first heard of this book, I immediately couldn't take it seriously. With that said, I have this burning urge to know what this book would have been like if it had been written by Don DeLillo. Take the same basic idea and the same insanity, and inject vision and deliberate craftsmanship. Part of me feels perverted for thinking this.

Posted by: student | Jun 21, 2007 11:29:16 AM

Thanks for the thorough review (slightly more informative than "Wow...Just wow"). The author/protagonist is awfully mean and vindictive for someone who basically is living a charmed life.

Posted by: Reader | Jun 21, 2007 2:57:40 PM

The book was largely entertaining, but fails because it does not earn the trust of the reader. From the beginning, one reads Rao's biography and assumes that it is a roman a clef, and the author herself feeds this assumption, saying something to the effect that "I clerked on the third cir.; the protagonist is a clerk in same cir., draw your own conclusions...."

As a reader, you delve into the book with zeal, thinking that it will offer biting humor a la "Devil Wears Prada" or at least be instructive/informative. It does neither. Instead, the book so often floats on the chasm between fiction and non-fiction that in the end, frustration reigns over satisfaction.

I did like some of the criticism of elitism, but the whole comment about Duke/Chicago/Harvard was overly gratuitous. And the lesbian thing would have worked if this girl was from Regent Law, but come on, NYU?

Overall, the whole book was frustrating, entertaining, funny, and not recommendable. Maybe that's exactly the point Rao--now an author--wanted to make about legal profession in general. If that is what she wanted to convey, she succeeded.

Posted by: Anon. | Jun 21, 2007 3:08:40 PM

The book was largely entertaining, but fails because it does not earn the trust of the reader. From the beginning, one reads Rao's biography and assumes that it is a roman a clef, and the author herself feeds this assumption, saying something to the effect that "I clerked on the third cir.; the protagonist is a clerk in same cir., draw your own conclusions...."

As a reader, you delve into the book with zeal, thinking that it will offer biting humor a la "Devil Wears Prada" or at least be instructive/informative. It does neither. Instead, the book so often floats on the chasm between fiction and non-fiction that in the end, frustration reigns over satisfaction.

I did like some of the criticism of elitism, but the whole comment about Duke/Chicago/Harvard was overly gratuitous. And the lesbian thing would have worked if this girl was from Regent Law, but come on, NYU?

Overall, the whole book was frustrating, entertaining, funny, and not recommendable. Maybe that's exactly the point Rao--now an author--wanted to make about legal profession in general. If that is what she wanted to convey, she succeeded.

Posted by: Anon. | Jun 21, 2007 3:08:46 PM

Pretty harsh critique. I thought the book was pretty good; it sounds like you had a set expectation for the book, which was clearly not realized. Anyhow, interesting review nonetheless. Thanks

Posted by: John | Jun 22, 2007 1:00:01 PM

"A pot living in a glass house would be in a better position to offer criticism."

I am stealing this.

Posted by: Me no takee copyright | Jun 22, 2007 3:49:07 PM

I was also very disappointed. It's a story not worth telling about people not worth knowing.

Posted by: matt | Jun 22, 2007 7:01:32 PM

What does Rao have against Duke? Did a cute Duke boy dump her for an attractive Duke girl?

Posted by: Dukie | Jun 22, 2007 9:29:14 PM

Your review is well thought out and made some interesting points. But overall I thought the book was great-- really witty. It is fiction, afterall. So going in with expectations to find dirt on the third circuit is a foolish venture. And as a side note, Rao's take on the Duke/Harvard stereotype was pretty accurate. No offense.

Posted by: anon- | Jun 24, 2007 3:20:34 PM

I can't take this book seriously: I assume it's going to be bad because the author had such terrible judgment to write it. She basically threw away her legal career -- who's going to hire her now? Would she pass a character & fitness interview? If she had a lick of sense, and writing talent, she'd have been able to find a less reckless and mean-spirited subject. I mean, it's not like a legal career is something you grow out of, like being a nanny...

Posted by: anonaclerk | Jun 24, 2007 4:41:32 PM

Thanks for saving me some loot.

She seems to have missed one of the most important lessons in the legal profession -- if you are going to gamble on writing a thinly disguised hit piece & risk losing your professional reputation, at least write something that is enjoyable to read. What a miserable, disloyal little §#*%.

Posted by: anon | Jun 26, 2007 5:13:41 PM

Raving narcissist? If anything the protagonist is too forgiving of her adversaries. What was her ulterior motive in consoling Evan after he had been mocked and alienated by the rest of the clerks? And when her honor was too distraught with denial to retrieve her delusional husband from his nude parade?
Sheila candidly reveals her insecurities and short-comings, making the character human and relatable. Does the fact that she has worked hard to achieve success in her life disqualify her from basic human emotions such as disappointment and inferiority?
To the judge and all of her friends, I have found a simple equation to harmony in the work place: treat your people well and they will repay you 10-fold. Treat them like dirt and you will reap dirt in return. Sheila gave better than she got.

Posted by: pepper | Jun 26, 2007 7:39:00 PM

Am I the only one who has no idea what a shivah is?

Posted by: Mark | Jul 11, 2007 11:19:54 PM

Mark, Shivah is the Jewish mourning ritual. Would you play funeral host, family wrangler, and caterer for a person that had treated you like an endentured servant for 12 months? i myself would not. i guess i'm not a raving narcissist.

Posted by: pepper | Jul 12, 2007 12:14:05 AM

She won't work in the law world again, but I imagine she's crying all the way to the bank!

Posted by: another anon | Jul 27, 2007 12:50:23 PM

The gayborhood where she lives in Philadelphia isn't skeevy at all.

Posted by: Spork City | Jul 29, 2007 12:50:48 PM

Saira Rao’s novel, Chambermaid, dominated blog chatter all last summer, as it was described as a Devil Wears Prada expose on clerkships. I just finished the book and it was a perfect summer read - breezy, diverting and not overly taxing. The novel exposes the foibles of the highly-competitive world of elite law schools and federal clerkships. As an NYU Law School graduate and as a former judicial clerk for the Third Circuit, Ms. Rao knows this world well. As a Cornell Law School graduate, I could only smile ruefully, as the narrator in her book Sheila Raj notes the hierarchy among top law schools:

[Judge] Friedman wanted Harvard, Yale, Columbia, NYU, Chicago, and Stanford. Penn, Duke, Virginia, and Cornell would do in a pinch. [p. 88]

And later in the book Judge Friedman mistakes Sheila’s law school as Cornell:

“Seems to me you haven’t said much of anything. Did you even learn anything at Cornell?”

“I went to Columbia, Judge.” The last thing I wanted to be mistaken for, even momentarily, was a non-top-five-law-schooler. [p. 170]

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