Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Good Books Are Good

I don't have any firm tastes when it comes to genres of novels. Any kind of book, it seems to me, can be a good book.

So when I read Janet Malcolm in The New Yorker saying that the "Gossip Girl" books were good books, I immediately made plans to go out and buy one. OK, books for ninth-graders about high school seniors aren't usually my thing, but hey, any book can be a good book.

I was especially taken by Malcolm's suggestion that the books were simultaneously engaging with, and poking fun at, the narcissism and self-involvement of adolesence. I have kind of a soft spot in my heart for teenagers and teenager-dom. Their over-the-top obsessions strike me as more interesting and admirable than they're usually made out to be. At the same time, those obsessions often creep into the realm of ridiculous. So I was intrigued by the double-sidedness.

I read the first book. It's all about kids who go to some fancy school for rich kids in Manhattan; there's a sort of "perfect" girl, a "striver" girl, some cute boys, an "artsy" outsider girl, and various satellite people. The main action is in the friendship between the perfect girl and the striver girl.

That aspect of the book is good.

(The cover. Wouldn't a drawing or something have been better?)

Maybe I'm a prude, but other things about the books creeped me out -- I couldn't stop imagining what it would be like to read these books as an actual ninth-grader.

There's very little actual sex. There is, of course, lots of discussion about sex, and lots of almost-sex. But that didn't isn't what creeped me out.

So what was it? Here are three things. One: various scenes of the striver girl stuffing her face and vomiting it all up right after. The mood of these sessions is very much "oh yes, business as usual." Indeed, one of the perfect girl and the striver girl's most relaxed moments together come while the striver girl is throwing up. It's familiar territory for them.

Two: the perfect girl comes back from boarding school and everyone's been gossiping about why she had to leave. In what seems to me a very realistic portrayal, the kids decide that she's had so much sex with so many guys in school that she contracted some super-STD and had to be kicked out. As a former reader of The Superficial, I can attest that the having of super STDs is a huge trope for dissing girls these days.

Three: one the gang is a rich boy who wants to fuck everything that moves, and who pushes a tipsy ninth-grader into a bathroom stall and takes off her clothes, and it's only because her hero brother responds to her panicked cell phone call and arrives in time that she is rescued.

OK. I know that eating disorders, misogyny, and date-rape are huge elements of the adolescent experience in 2008. And I know that reading about stuff is a way of understanding it. Sure. And there's always, always the problem of whether evil is there for titillation or there because evil is real.

Still. There's something weird about it here. Sure, the girls' lives are being examined, and sure, the girls all suffer from problems. But the overall effect is of glamour. You know how some problems people have can seem very real and very painful but still kind of cooler and more interesting than life's ordinary problems? That's what it's like.

I mean, the overall effect for me was glamour, and I'm a middle-aged professor. How could a ninth-grader experience them as anything but? So overall it seems to me any critical message is drowned out by the more obvious, "This, this is what the good life is." That's what creeped me out. Especially, I gotta say, the throwing up. What the fuck?

After Gossip Girl I read this book called The Death of Vishnu which takes place in India and is written by a guy who grew up in India and now lives in the US. It was almost unclassifiable to me: a quiet story about the families who live in an apartment building, but also a meditation on death and the nature of rationality and spirituality, but also a kind of cinematic soap opera shot through with Bollywood references. Unclassifiable. Just very good.


Daniel said...

I know that what I'm about to say isn't what Noko Marie was writing about, but I'll say it anyway. As someone who now lives in Manhattan, yet grew up culturally pretty far removed from all of it, rich youth culture here is scary. Kids are so sophisticated and terrifying on the bus and on the streets with their cell phones. And I am regularly on the Upper East Side, where the high end high schools (presumably the ones that Gossip Girls used as models) are, and there is this allure and sophistication, but also (and I'm sure I'm stereotyping, but maybe not totally) this complete lack of childhood. It's pretty awful.

Captain Colossal said...

I actually read a bunch of those books a while ago, and I had exactly the same reaction. They made me, at almost 30, think maybe I was living this super boring drab life, because I liked my friends and I worked hard and I worried about cleaning my room. I mean, they were good, the books, but they had that incredibly unsettling effect that what you thought of as the real world was in fact this sad facsimile of it.

Noko Marie said...

Hey Daniel, Yep. I'm sure what you're seeing is exactly what's being described. And it is sad. It's like another one of those arms race problems.

CC, glad you felt the same way. It's weird, because normally I think it's good when literature has this that unsettling effect.. or at least sometimes I do. But not, I guess, when it comes to susceptible youth! Maybe I am a prude.