Books: Guzzi girls finish first

THE PERFECT VEHICLE by Melissa Holbrook Pierson, Granta pounds 7.99

The true motorcycle was not born until 1885, when Gottlieb Daimler created a wooden-framed, gas-fuelled addition to the scores of iron-wheeled, crackpot machines conceived by tweedy late-19th-century eccentrics, usually in the back shed. The Cynophere, for example, for which M Huret of Paris secured his US patent in 1875, depended for its movement on two dogs trapped inside treadmills which doubled as wheels. M Huret happily announced that "for pleasure purposes it is unsurpassed, and when fully introduced to the American public [it] is destined to achieve a popularity far greater than the velocipede, while the modern expense will bring it within easy reach of all." Melissa Holbrook Pierson dryly commends M Huret's understanding of the public love of a bargain (though we don't learn where he suggests the dogs be procured). But she also hints at his marketing error: "He didn't sufficiently note the fact that he was attempting a translation from a country that ate horse meat to one that did not."

Modern motorbikes have names like Monster and Dominator; no more the pioneer-o adventurers suggested by the Vincent Black Shadow, the Indian Scout, or the Handerson Ace, or the World War Two cartoon-strip hero, le cow-boy motorise. Modern motorbike rallies, Pierson laments, are polluted by gangs of louts who shout "Tits!" at any passing female. They sell T- shirts bearing legends like "Aids Cures Fags", and "Speak English or Get the Fuck Out". Why on earth, you wonder, does she attend these rallies?

The questions "Why am I obsessed with motorbiking?" and "Why don't more women ride motorbikes?" infuse this book. Pierson's mother instructed her in the discipline of prompt thank-you letters; Mrs King's ballroom dancing-class instructed her in the codes of cutlery. Her schooldays pointed towards a quiet life spent behind library stacks, wearing "muted silk scarves and subtle glasses". "How did motorbikes ever enter this equation?" she asks.

Pierson is a nervy twentysomething journalist (parts of this book were published independently in Harper's and the Threepenny Review). She earns a living by proofing romantic novels and sending poems into futile orbit around distant dead stars. Secretly, she longs for someone to love her to happiness, to cure her alienation, to soothe her terrors. She suffers some disastrous affairs, which draw her towards motorbikes, chiefly those of her unsuitable men. Her anxiety (the Fear, as she calls it) grows. One heartbroken winter after Tad, a "sculptor", has abandoned her, and after months of ignoring the Moto Guzzi V50 she bought with him, now growing dusty in her garage, she learns to ride it and to love riding it. She has more unhappy affairs, now exclusively with other bikers, and remains paralysed by the pervasive, unspecified terror.

The Perfect Vehicle crunches like a series of graceless gear-changes between a variety of tones and genres - technical manual, fanatical sermon- to-the-converted, pop-feminist rant, journalistic extracts (some chapters read too much like the articles they were), agonised psychoanalytical autobiography, teen coming-of-age story. One chapter, entitled (and indeed consisting of) "A Brief Catalog of Spills", owes much of its prose style to the macho reportage of programmes like Police, Camera, Action!. We are plunged into a tour of the author's pathologies, which she increasingly projects on her bike. (By the end of the book, she has identified them as obsessive-compulsive disorder, compounded by severe anxiety.)

Often, she is rapturous about the Guzzi, stacking its mechanical rationality against the uncertainty of her boyfriends, her unalloyed pleasure in its speed against their shortcomings. At one rather silly point it even talks to her, advises her to "captain your own ship". Sometimes Pierson fears that the Guzzi suffers the same doomed fragility as she does: "I would be riding along through the beauteous world, pressed by the heavy certainty that both of us were dying." Occasionally, it becomes just another agent of her inevitable destruction.

Interspersed between this diary of recovery are some interesting, well- researched discussions. Pierson sketches an intelligent cultural history of the demonisation of bikers in America: the bourgeois horror at the refusal of the lower orders to stay in their place, the "terrible specter of the prole run amok" on the poor man's automobile; the disaffected men who came home to unemployment from the Second World War to run in biker gangs and became the first Hell's Angels, thus lending popular credibility to the existence of a new monster, the teenager. This delinquent on two wheels was exemplified by Marlon Brando's greaser in The Wild One, seducing good girl Mary Murphy into saying naughty things like "It's fast - It scared me - But it felt good."

Pierson is also perspicacious on how the bikers' machismo was subverted to become a rough-trade gay icon, and on the cultural forces which still exclude women from motorbiking. The conventions of pornography only ever show women in proximity to powerful bikes when they are positioned provocatively around them, nipples erect - in effect, waiting for a bloke to actualise that power, to which the woman herself has no access. Pierson's observations about the alienation the biker feels on the road ring true, especially that of the woman biker - as do her comments on the parallel admission into "an elect", the solidarity between bikers, who observe a kind of mechanised freemasonry. But, in the end, such discourses peter out, chiefly because of the book's lack of focus. They are abandoned for an attempt to map the afflictions of the troubled heart - and the result is often mawkish.

This book doesn't really advance the cause of women bikers. The balance between style and content is often dubious, and the supposed nod to girl- power seems rather to reinforce the idea that women on motorbikes are a transgression of sexual norms. In the end, The Perfect Vehicle fails to achieve real lyricism. It is disappointing, given the subject-matter, that it should remain so pedestrian.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

    RuPaul interview

    The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
    Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

    Secrets of comedy couples

    What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
    Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

    Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

    While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
    The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

    The best swimwear for men

    From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
    Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

    Mark Hix goes summer foraging

     A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
    Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

    With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

    Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
    Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

    Aaron Ramsey interview

    Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
    Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

    Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

    As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
    The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

    Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

    Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms