The Five Simple Machines by Todd McEwen

published 2013   2nd story: Wheel

Then there were the nights when Federico’s girlfriend’s girlfriend joined them. She was as voluptuous as she was vacuous; her only conversation consisted in saying over and over again that her grand-uncle sat on the Supreme Court. They didn’t seem to have much contact, unless he was making the Justice’s ears burn in Washington as she endlessly babbled about him… this girl, thought Federico, looked like the old-fashioned KILLER BARBIE, before Barbie became a cheerleader and then the perpetual victim of cookie-buying pedophiles: her stripy swimsuit, swept-up hair smelling of Kent cigarettes, her f[]-me-or-go-to-hell eyes, killer legs, killer mules…

Killer Barbie was driving them out of town, to the reservoir, what a fenced-off prosaic place for a picnic. There was nothing but water, in a cage, picnic tables, and an anemic wood full of trash…

Killer Barbie said Let’s try to find a place without all these cigarette butts, so I can smoke…

observations: So there I was recently thinking about Barbie dolls and what an important part of life they have been to many many people, and yet how little they turn up in books. And then up pops this story (definitely not for children), one of six. The book is a mixture of tiresomeness and entrancing writing, and one of the tiresome aspects is that there are SIX simple machines, not five, and this is explained, pointlessly, at the beginning of the fourth story.

I have bowdlerized the version above. And no, no qualms about that – when preparing extracts for the blog, I sometimes excise the colour of a dress, say, if it doesn’t match what is otherwise the perfect illo, so my principles are long gone, and this is a quite stupendously rude story.

This character is referred to as Killer Barbie throughout, which alone would make it lovable, and in fact it is an excellent story, and McEwen is an extraordinary writer – even though I disliked at least one of the other stories very much, and others to varying degrees. I love one of the machines being a wedge and having the heroine wearing wedge shoes: I hate his need to write and write and write about teenage/college boys’ discovery of sex.

But mostly the stories are very funny, and very clever:

Tilly… was on secondment from Variety in London, where it seemed they had little to do. Well, what were they going to write about? Kenneth Branagh?

The end of this one  seems to be deliberately referencing Catcher in the Rye , with a scene set near a merry-go-round, and you feel Todd McEwen would approve of this Catcher in the Rye picture here: 

McEwen is something like a male equivalent of the writing of Miranda July, Lena Dunham, Sheila Heti.

Clothes in Books has considerable form on the question of Barbie dolls: the evidence is here and here. And McEwen has, impressively, got the big but often under-appreciated point about the dolls: originally they were not princesses or dressed in pink ballgowns – they were hard-edged career girls in the Joan Crawford mould, with a wardrobe to match. Not so much anymore, which is a shame.

There are a lot of website devoted to dressed dolls; they start getting scarey, like alternate world scarey, after a bit. More straightforward dolls on the blog here (Les Mis), here (Saki’s wonderful and wicked Morlvera) and here (the Little Princess).


  1. Completely off-topic, but you might like Blueprint for Murder by Roger Bax - it has a head to toe description of a girl who dresses in the worst possible taste (Doris). I also just had a flashback of a Margaret Drabble where the heroine feels someone stroking her legs in a shop - it is a small child intrigued by her black stockings. Very avant garde for the time. Oh and Elizabeth Jane Howard has a heroine buying a white trouser suit. She calls it "a nice clothe". Oddly, nobody shoots her.

  2. Oh I'll have to check all those out, thanks Lucy. Oh, I see that Roger Bax is the same person as Andrew Garve, whom I featured recently. And I keep thinking I should reread Drabble, she's good on clothes. Iris Murdoch has a young woman trying on suede boots in a shop in one of hers I think...

  3. Moira - It's so interesting I think how Barbie has changed over the decades. As you say, she used to be a hard-edged 'career girl.' Not now. In fact, it's gotten to the point where I didn't want my daughter to have a Barbie doll when she was little. I just didn't want her to 'buy' that image. Oh, and I'm enjoying the humour just of the snippets you've shared; I'll bet the book has a lot of wit. You know, you make a well-taken point: as much as Barbie has influenced popular culture over the years, it's a wonder we don't see her more in fiction other than in passing references.

    1. Indeed Margot - the more I think about it the more weird it seems that Barbie features so little in books...

  4. This looks an interesting collection, I'll ponder it for a while I think.

    1. Col, it's a funny one because I did enjoy the book, but I wouldn't at all be saying 'oh yes, you must try this one.' Very masculine though!


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