The manic pixie dream girl is a term that has been around since at least 2007, when Nathen Rubin wrote this, regarding Kirsten’s Dunst’s character, in his review of the film Elizabethtown:
Dunst embodies a character type I like to call The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (see Natalie Portman in Garden State for another prime example). The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures. – Nathan Rubin, 2007 in review of Elizabethtown
However, while reading Andre Breton’s Nadja, I felt a mounting dread that the concept, if not the term, might have originated much earlier. 1928, to be exact.
Thankfully, I think Breton managed to slip through a loophole, so to speak, that allows him to avoid some of the worst aspects of this by-now-tired trope.
But first, I should explain why I felt “a mounting dread.” It’s rooted in criticism I’ve read in recent years of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG), which has rightly pointed out the many problems these kinds of characters have. The most obvious is that it makes the character a hollow idea instead of a person that, as Rubin observed, solely serves as an method to change the male protagonist in some way. There are equally obvious sexist and political implications to this dynamic, but on a purely literary level, using the MPDG is lazy and, frankly, boring. Whether you’ve read Rubin’s article, you know what the MPDG is because she has been seen again and again and again over the past ten years. Not as much anymore, perhaps due precisely to criticism, but still, the trope lingers in our culture, and it’s all too easy for writers with even the best of intentions to craft a type instead of a character which, I will stress again, is boring compared to the kind of power a work of art can have when it involves people whose humanity feels rich and complex and as real as our own.
I obviously don’t think much of the MPDG, so you’ll surely understand why my heart sank with the titular character Nadja entered Breton’s story. I should mention that the narrator of this story is Breton himself and the events that involve Nadja were based on real incidents with a girl he met. That this work of fiction is inspired, if not entirely based, on facts does not, however, make the use of an MPDG any more or less appropriate. Because, to be clear, the MPDG only exists in someone’s mind; it is a constrictive label we can impose upon anyone we like, just like we can choose to judge the life of a person we interact with solely at work on this particular public presentation of themselves. When a writer makes a character an MPDG, it reveals the emotional and sympathetic limitations of the character using that label on another, not to mention a level of immaturity.
Yet for a while, I feared that Najda was an MPDG and nothing more. Consider this statement by the novel’s narrator – “I have taken Nadja, from the first day to the last, for a free genius, something like one of those spirits of the air which certain magical practices momentarily permit us to entertain but which we can never overcome.” Or that the novel is littered with “adorkable” moments, as well as a kind of charming worldview that can sound profound in its childish simplicity or just plain childish depending on what you want to hear.
Or consider this excerpt from the back of the book:
The Nadja of the book is a girl, but, like Bertrand Russell’s definition of electricity as “not so much a thing as a way things happen,” Nadja is not so much a person as the way she makes people behave. She has been described as a state of mind, a feeling about reality, a kind of vision, and the reader sometimes wonders whether she exists at all. Yet it is Nadja who gives form and structure to the novel. “Nadja is so wonderfully free from all regard for appearance that she scorns reason and law alike,” is the way Simone de Beauvoir describes her.
Luckily, after finishing the novel and thinking about it for some time, I’m confident in saying that Breton avoids the common pitfalls associated with the MPDG. In fact, Nadja arguably manages to reveal and criticize those pitfalls nearly a century before Rubin would coin the now ubiquitous term.
How does Breton manage this? One significant factor is the purpose Nadja serves. Or rather, does not serve. She may inspire the narrator to reflect, but the book does not given the impression that she has fundamentally changed him for the better by opening him up to a new perspective on life. On the contrary, he seems far more confused after meeting her.
Besides avoiding the Hallmarkian (can that be a term I get credit for coining?) predictability of typical MPDG stories, Breton also doesn’t hide the short-comings of his narrator (possibly himself) in terms of how he sees Nadja, such as when he admits that he dislikes thinking of Nadja doing anything normal. He enjoys her when he gets to listen to her unique perspective on the world, but he hates to think that when she isn’t with him she needs to sleep, eat, and presumably even go to the bathroom like other mere mortals. And the more about herself she reveals, the more disappointed Breton becomes, as she rebels again the confines of the label he has put upon her. In the end, he is arguably aware himself that he gets more pleasure thinking about his idea of Nadja than Nadja herself, which explains why it is during their time apart that Breton seems most captivated by her.
Thirdly, I can’t gloss over the fact that, at the end of the novel, Nadja is committed to an asylum. Her “quirks” are not deemed adorkable but insane, which shows Breton is also self-aware enough to understand that any character who acted like the traditional MPDG would be unable to function in society. This may be – again referring to the back cover of the Grove Press edition – “the first and perhaps best Surrealist romance ever written,” but reality has not been shut out entirely. (I’m reminded of the Russian literary stock type of the “yurodivy”, or Holy Fool, who also combines depth with innocence. One of the most famous examples is Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and, well, it doesn’t work out well for him, either – shocking for a Russian novel, I know).
Speaking of surrealism, that leads me to the fourth and most fascinating way Breton avoids a Hallmarkian plot. If you don’t already know, Breton was the leader of the Surrealist movement in literature, one of its first and greatest practitioners and theoreticians (among his other works is The Surrealist Manifestos). This is a book that is both surreal and about surrealism. And what is surreal? I won’t presume to give a definitive definition, but from the surrealist texts I’ve read – such as many of Haruki Murakami’s novels, which are probably the most internationally recognizable and popular surrealist works today – one key feature is a blurring of reality and irreality, where the story’s world isn’t quite right. There may be a logic underlying most things, yet the entire universe is either predicated upon or being invaded by something bizarre and out of place (think Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil or, to an extent, Kafka’s The Trial or The Castle). In the case of Murakami’s novel After Dark, much of the action is completely grounded in reality, yet one character falls into a deep sleep straight out of a fairy tale and a mysterious figure appears in a video to…well, the origin, purpose, and meaning of the surrealist elements are never clear. That’s what makes it surreal as opposed to traditional fantasy. Surrealist literature offers the sensation that you are on the cusp of discovering something wonderful and terrible, a new reality, a new way of thinking, something so new no name will do it justice. Yet it remains forever out of reach, teasing us with a revelation we never fully comprehend.
Nadja is infused with that same surrealist sense, from the existential ruminations of the narrator to Nadja’s drawings, which were some of my favorite parts of the book. I should mention that not only are they interesting for their mere presence in the book – the novel contains photos and drawings, which is an inter-modal technical innovation in itself – but they look physical dreams, weird and jarring yet hypnotic because, as I said in the previous paragraph, you feel like there is some meaning hidden in this enigmatic object that would expand your sense of self if only you look hard enough. Of course, the surrealist elements in Nadja aren’t perhaps as literal as in the works of Murakami, but it has the same spirit, and if it doesn’t quite conform to what we expect surrealist literature to offer today, remember this was the original texts that launched the entire movement.
Overall, then, Nadja avoids the dull, predictable structure of a typical MPDG-story by:
- Not being a generic story in which a male protagonist is “awakened” by a beautiful innocent genius who feels more like a projection of the protagonist than a character that can exist on her own.
- Examining the ways in which reality and truth work to demystify the MPDG and thus reveals the true nature of the protagonist’s “relationship” with her.
- Frankly confronting the fact that to truly be a MPDG is to be mad.
- Being imbued with a meaningful literary philosophy as opposed to being the product of the kind of corporate-thinking that produces so many new stories every year that feel agonizingly old.
Nadja is an intriguing novel that I hope will inspire you to investigate the surrealist genre further, which is a genre (or style or whatever you want to call it) I think is probably one of my favorites and certainly the one I most admire…when it’s done right.
So go read it. Now.
Next review – Corey Rubin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Burke to Trump!