Tom Leveen’s Manicpixiedreamgirl
is an eponymous novel about the trope coined in 2007 but existing far back in the history of stories about a particular type of female character who acts as a muse to the main character. Initially described as: “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. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an all-or-nothing-proposition.”
Since this novel is titled about the concept of a MPDG, my review might sidetrack in discussing the success in bringing attention or subversion to the MPDG trope. This is in conjunction to the regular enjoyment of the plot of boy meets girl, girl doesn’t really meet boy; boy begins to build a fantasy world about the idealization of girl and audience collectively slaps their foreheads in exasperation as boy ignores girlfriend he has for girl he barely knows because social cues are hard, dude.
In this story we have seventeen-year-old Tyler, our sensitive writer-director, as the narrator. Leveen is very good at writing an authentic teenage boy voice, and even though I spent a lot of my time wanting to shake Tyler for being a moody and self-centered jerk about his obsession, his personality felt real. Aggravatingly real. The majority of the other inhabitants of the novel, while entertaining, are mostly vague character sketches. Tyler’s parents are supportive. His two friends, Justin and Robby, are guys who are more extroverted and less artistic than Tyler, but loyal and providers of much banter. The English teacher is inspiring and awesome while being a little bit terrifying. Etc., etc.
Thankfully, there is more attention given to the two girls who occupy most of his time: Becky Webb, the aforementioned MPDG, and Syd, his flesh and blood girlfriend. Bonus points go to Tyler’s sister, who often serves as a deus ex chaperone driver device, but is also given some conflict and depth in regards to her own wild ways and advising of Tyler of the ways of girls and “so’s your face” retorts.
Syd probably gets the short shrift of the characterization stick, because, while we know a lot about her hobbies: she’s mature, she’s on the debate team, she’s smart and forward thinking...we never know why she likes Tyler so much to put up with his inattentive boyfriend ways and his obvious obsession with another girl. It is even lampshaded in the narrative and joked about that he must have an amazingly large package to compensate for his poor boyfriend behavior, but it’s still unconvincing. Her tolerance of Tyler’s fixation is probably the one sticking point many people might have of the novel because it doesn’t entirely seem to fit with the rest of her personality.
And Becky Webb, the majority of the novel she is
a MPDG because that’s all Tyler allows her to be. At the beginning, all we know of her is that she has a star tattoo, she eats broken animal crackers but not the whole ones, she listens to esoteric bands. She is, at alternating times, written straight and then written as a subversion of the trope. Obviously, she is his muse since he writes endless stories about her, being perfect and someone for him to save and protect. Then he sees things about her that are not so perfect, that in a meta way are earmarks of a MPDG’s “broken quirkiness” but do force Ty to confront his own problematic idealization of her. So, rounding back to that whole title and successful reappropriation thing: Leveen does and doesn’t. Mostly he does.
From my experience, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope deconstruction happens in two ways.
1) the narrator’s opinion of the dream girl is discredited, either by the character maturing and having a greater understanding of the girl/themselves/everything (Joel from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) or the narrative frames that opinion as a flaw that the audience sees even if the character does not (Tom from “500 Days of Summer” ...although the effectiveness of that one is debatable).
2) the dream girl is made into a fleshed out character with her own motivations, backstory and desires (Ramona Flowers from the Scott Pilgrim
comics or Amelie from Amelie
, who is very MPDG in her actions but--being the main character and having her own agency--doesn’t apply to the major criticism this trope brings up).
And, in my opinion, the best stories have both these things occur in various shades through the narrative.
This novel gets so on the nose about the subject that Syd blatantly calls Becky a “manic pixie dream girl” by name when she confronts Tyler about it. Leveen is pretty careful to hint how Becky has more to her than Tyler sees, even if it’s largely uncapitalized on. And he has everyone, including Tyler, pointing out how this idealization is not really beneficial. That for all the times he dreamed of being the hero and whisking her into his arms, seeing her actually cry--from her actually real problems--is decidedly not as fun as it was in his imagination.
At the same time, Becky never really gets her own chance to shine. We have the moments of debunking Tyler’s perceived moments of significance, like when she mentioned how the star tattoo was really something she just picked off the wall for a lark and not pointing to anything “deeply symbolic.” Her characterized breakthrough moment is simply being surprised that Tyler wouldn’t take advantage of her and the revelation that she is complicated and more than love's true kiss can heal messed up. Likewise, Syd’s departure as Tyler’s girlfriend is so easy and uncomplicated it feels like she pulled a MPDG move herself by vanishing from his life to leave him. The story ends more for Tyler's peace of mind than either of their stories being resolved.
In spite of these reservations, I still think Leveen succeeded in “Manicpixiedreamgirl.” Largely for the insight drunken Robby brings by saying “when you talk about her...I gotta say you’re not much fun to be around” … “but on the other hand, after you’ve seen her? After you’ve hung out with her for a bit? Dude, you’re a party” that pretty much shows it’s Tyler’s own issues, his hang ups and perceptions. When he's not being self-absorbed, the novel gives hints to deeper motivations and interpersonal relationships that Tyler simply doesn't see, but might at the end of the story. It’s a short novel, clocking in at 241 pages, and the brevity shows in the lack of details and character moments that would give the subject real punch, but the general thrust of it is there. And while not so amazingly enjoyable for me (enjoyable! nice! but also short and I wanted more of it), I think many other readers could enjoy the story on its own merits or as a contribution for the larger discussion of what exactly constitutes a good/bad/stereotypical/nuanced Manic Pixie Dream Girl character.
My vote is for Clementine, just saying.