Sunday, May 30, 1993
“Shopping in Space: Essays on America’s Blank Generation Fiction” by Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveney (Atlantic Monthly Press/Serpent’s Tail: $21; 263 pp.)
Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Mark Lindquist is the author of “Sad Movies” and “Carnival
“Bright Lights, Big City,” “Less Than Zero.” Young authors, big
sales. It was the mid ’80s and the publishing industry found a new demographic group.
Novels by young authors were suddenly the flavor of the month. Though the works were often wildly divergent in style and content, they were herded together for shooting sprees, blasted for their depiction of night life and narcotics, for their connection to the movies and music and pop culture. In other words, for being of their time.
In 1989 Spy magazine issued “Spy Notes,” a Cliff’s Notes-like satire of “hip, urban novels of the 1980s.” When books achieve a status that inspires parody, they’re probably as permanent as anything else in our cultural landscape. “Shopping in Space,” a collection of essays, recognizes this.
Two British critics, Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveney, bring insight and intellectual rigor to bear on contemporary American fiction with an objective distance that could possibly only come from foreign shores. Nobody has written about contemporary American fiction in quite this way before. “Shopping in Space” smartly argues that these novels, “far from endorsing the worst aspects of a greedy and corrupt consumer society, together constitute a revealing critique of this society and illuminate all its darkest, weirdest corners.”
Pop music, advertising, TV and movies have all helped define postmodern literature. Young and Caveney, instead of whining about this, shrink the gap between “high” and “low” art. They explore irony as the dominant tone of our time. They know emotions often unexpressed or understated in postmodern works–love, fear, hope–exist nonetheless, and ache all the more because of the repression necessary to maintain protective distance in a society that puts high value on cheap junk.
In an essay subtitled “Less Than Zero–a Hollywood Hell,” Young cuts to the crux of Bret Easton Ellis’ view of the jaded L.A. teen-agers of his first novel — and the parents who raised them — when she calls it “essentially one of puritan disgust.”
Young understands that Ellis must possess a kind of old-fashioned nostalgia for a better life, a longing for something more authentic and moral. This makes her perhaps the only critic on the planet to accuse Ellis of morality. And she’s right.
Young finds nostalgia also hiding in Mary Gaitskill’s heart. Gaitskill’s first collection of stories, “Bad Behavior,” is mostly about dancers, models and prostitutes, struggling city dwellers. While Gaitskill’s style is easily distinguishable from Ellis’ — she still believes in character, plot and structure — there are thematic links. Gaitskill’s closing story, “Heaven,” is a paean to old-fashioned American family life that finds art in the ordinary, a story that, like Ellis’ “Less Than Zero,” betrays a nostalgia for a less corrupt and cheapened existence than the one offered this American generation.
The family is also the focal point for Caveney’s take on the work of Jay McInerney, who opened up the market for young authors with the wild success of his first novel, “Bright Lights, Big City.” Noting that the narrator of this second-person novel continually creates himself in the image of adolescence, Caveney approaches the death bed scene between the unnamed hero and his mother as the moment in a child’s development when he recognizes himself as an independent whole. Caveney understands the line between mere adolescent narcissism and the heightened self-awareness of a natural writer dealing with the fictional nature of contemporary experience.
(Pop quiz: Who’s more real, Ronald Reagan or Wayne and Garth? Roseanne Roseannadanna or Oprah? Prove it.)
Caveney argues that the characters in McInerney’s most recent novel, “Brightness Falls,” who have aged into new priorities such as love and marriage, achieve their maturity by “acceptance of the reality of their illusions.” He means, I think, that they finally understand that life isn’t a movie and they can’t be adolescents forever.
Ellis’ “American Psycho” gives “Shopping in Space” a fat target for its most singular insights. To fully appreciate how smart and well reasoned this essay is, one must remember the hysteria that surrounded the publication of this serial murderer novel told in the first person. In a typical example, Gloria Steinem — who wrote her own neuroses into a political agenda and a bestseller — said Ellis should take personal responsibility for any woman murdered or tortured in a manner similar to those described in the novel. This is like saying Walt Disney should take responsibility for any deer killed in a manner similar to Bambi’s mother.
Young, however, realizes “the onus is on the reader to interject the moral values so conspicuously lacking in the text.” The action is recounted by an “unreliable narrator,” and, more than that, the narrator is not the author, not a character even, but a device. “Patrick, in his role of ultimate consumer, someone who is composed entirely of inauthentic commodity-related desires, cannot exist as a person.”
“American Psycho” is possibly the perfect example of what the authors call “blank generation” fiction, a classic postmodern text, focused on image and style, relentlessly ironic, self-reflexive, a puzzle. It is also clever and hilarious. And it is affirmative, ironically affirmative, of course, but still an affirmative book that cries out for a saner, more genuine and moral world.
Besides Ellis, Gaitskill and McInerney, “Shopping in Space” pulls together the works of Joel Rose, Tama Janowitz, Dennis Cooper, Catherine Texier, Lynne Tillman, Gary Indiana, David Wojnarowicz and, weirdly, Michael Chabon, who writes like one of their fathers. Though some of these books have been called subversive, most, in fact, border on reactionary. They are reacting against the values — or lack of — that have been handed down to them. “Everything goes when anything goes,” as the Replacements’ song says.
E. M. Forster said that literature can do what objective history cannot: capture the “buzz of implication” of an era; these novels will be the most revealing way for future generations to understand our time, a time when it’s no longer shocking if urban teen-agers bring their own babies and handguns to public high schools, a time when one of the best pop albums is aptly titled, “Nothing’s Shocking.”
Each of these books brings light, truth and understanding to an increasingly dark and mendacious era, and hasn’t that always been the stuff of good old-fashioned literature?
“Shopping in Space” should be read by anyone interested in the future of fiction. As the authors put it, “Ironically, fiction is now the closest we’re likely to come to truth and as such it should be loved and cherished.”
Love of literature shows on every page of this book, love that clearly grew out of a giddy adolescent crush but has matured, becoming deeper and more knowing.