It took me a little while to get into this book but having finished it I am impressed. I think it is better than his debut novel whose title caught the zeitgeist and labelled a culture: Generation X.
Tyler, the son of hippy mother Jasmine, wants to become an entrepreneur (his first memories are of Ronald Reagan). But he is growing up in Lancaster, an American town whose raison d'etre has been its nuclear processing plant, now closed. He studies hotel management at the local community college; his friends have dead-end jobs. His rich grandparents become homeless after their investment fund goes bankrupt; they start pyramid-selling a cat-food scheme. Nutrition involves the by-products of the oil industry or the processing of the unwanted and unmentionable bits of animals. This is a critique of American consumer culture by a narrator-protagonist who wants to be a part of it.
What helps is that the narrator is himself conflicted. He scorns the "sand candles" and "rainbow merchandise" of his Mum's hippy past. A visit to his natural father, living with two women and ten children in the wilds, has elements of nightmare. When visiting Europe he castigates Europeans for having no ambition. But when he goes to Hollywood he ends up working in a chicken reprocessing plant and then becomes a sidewalk artist. He is seduced by the future but all the time he lives among the wreckage of consumer culture:
- "The Ridgecrest Mall was where my friends and I, all of us hyper from sugar and too many video games, feeling fizzy and unreal - like products that can't exist without advertising - shunted about in our packs: skatepunks, deathcookies, jocks, psueds, Euros, and geeks. ... I'm almost too old for malljamming now, and to be hoest, there's not much mallleft to malljam in. Today around us I see wounded shoe stores, dead pizzerias, plywooded phone marts, and decayed and locked-up sports stores." (Ch 31)
This American town past its best-before date reminded me of the town in The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold.
The way in which the narrator describes his world using detailed lists of consumer items reminded me of American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis: "No seedy spider plants. No depressing sand candles. No gruesome rainbow merchandise. Just extremely tasteful black modular sofa units, a TV and CD sound system built into the man-high 'entertainment totem' (black), the incredibly tasteful nonshag carpet (gray), the futon (gray-and-white stripes), the aforementioned sleek Italian minifridge (gray), the computer (off-white - the catalog says 'oatmeal'), books and tapes, a clock (black), my collection of globes on the table near the window ... and a mirror featuring a bright red, totally desirable Porsche in the middle." (Ch 6)
Another bit made me think of William Burroughs (the author of eg Naked Lunch): "Futuretowns are located on the outskirts of the city you live in, just far enough away to be out of reach of angry, torch-carrying mobs that might roam in from the down-town core. You're not supposed to notice futuretowns - they're technically invisible: low flat buildings that look like they've just popped out of a laser printer; fetishistic landscaping; new-cars-only in the employee lots; small back-lit Plexiglass totems out front quietly brandishing the strangely any-language names of the company housed inside." (Ch 48)
He can certainly turn a phrase, frequently adding modern concepts to describe something in an original way:
- "an auto-mall rezoning both deleted and reformatted the landscape." (Ch 7)
- "Monkey-suit cocktail parties with the fashion-android wives." (Ch 9)
- "Monique and her libertarian sexual mores, while not exactly sluttish, have a kind of unclean tinge, like a pack of white sugar that has burst, and is overflowing onto a supermarket aisle." (Ch 36)
- "Parisians visibly wincing with anticipation for their August holidays, like a man who has to pee badly." (Ch 22)
- "unplugged computers dreaming of pie charts." (Ch 61)
Other memorable moments:
- "You're young. Phone me in ten years. You'll know the limits of your talent by then; just watch doors slam shut all around you. You won't be so cocky then." (Ch 9)
- "Daisy suggested that Grandma and Grandpa simply use one of those room deodorizers that function by anesthetizing your nose so you can't smell the smell. 'Kind of like Dan's personality' I added, triggering Jasmine to escort me to a weekend-long chiding seminar." (Ch 12)
- "The new things just seem to erase the old things the way new scenery erases old scenery when you're driving down the highway." (Ch 12)
- "When you arrive on the doorstep of Europe, you are given a pair of wings ... with which to fly backward in time." (Ch 20)
- "Girls are like a restaurant, Tyler, with tay-rrible service. Girls will make you wait and wait and wait and wait and wait and wait and wait and just when you think you will scream and leave the restaurant , suddenly a merveilleux meal arrives, more fantastic than anything you had hoped for." (Ch 24)
- "As you grow older, it becomes harder to feel 100 percent happy; you learn all the things that can go wrong." (Ch 27)
- "Clean hair, clean body; clean mind; clean life. You could become famous at any moment and your whole personal history could be unearthed. And then what would they find?" (Ch 28)
- "A few stores still thrive, commercial success being in direct proportion to the unnecessariness of the product being provided." (Ch 31)
- "We scavenge the tapes from the backseat, which has degenerated into a jambalaya of bicycle shorts, cassettes, maps, and turkey-jerky wrappers." (Ch 48)
- "Life is essentially the Vikings slashing your family to ribbons, then setting fire to your crops." (Ch 53)
- "I've been dialling my inner phone so long now, if the other end answered, I'd probably blank out and forget who I'd called." (Ch 58)
I loved this book for the way the author set up the hippy vs consumer culture clash, enabling him to critique them both. His hero is a true Colin Wilson Outsider, being both seduced and alienated by a world that holds out so much false promise while delivering such a squalid reality.
He writes well too!
February 2021; 282 pages
|This review was written by |
the author of Motherdarling