Friday, January 15, 2010

The Literature of Emptiness

We’ve had more than a month of shoveling snow; are shivering even in multiple sweaters and fingerless gloves; and have curled up under a blanket watching Dr. Zhivago or listening to Susan Boyle for what seems forever.

And oh, yeah, there’s reading. This week I hit bottom with the Literature of Emptiness. I had planned to enjoy a stack of ‘80s Bantam New Fiction novels, beginning with Emily Listfield's Slightly Like Strangers, which has a stylized retro-chic cover photo of a miserable-looking couple sitting in a movie theater. This '80s Bantam series consisted of original novels published only in paperback. It was a “copycat” of Vintage Contemporary Originals, which published Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, one of the quintessential ‘80s classics which may or may not have held up.

I’m tempted to call this author “Emily Listless.” Her style is absolutely flat and unemotional. The cool cover photo of clubbing-couple '80s-hair Barbie and Ken at the movies captures the tone.

In Slightly Like Strangers, Listfield’s protagonists, Amanda and Sam, are confused. Amanda is from New York and Sam is from Ohio, and those places represent the main differences between them. Amanda has seldom worked at a steady job, but now she is a partner in a boutique. Practical Sam is an editor at a trashy fashion newspaper he despises, but doesn’t have the courage to quit his job and write what he wants. Amanda, on the other hand, thinks his paper Backlog's shallow questions about what kind of underwear a choreographer wears when he dances are just fine. The two don't seem to have much in common.

Sam wants the stability of marriage; Amanda isn't sure. Once they're married, it’s as though they’re playing house. They go to a lot of clubs and have a lot of sex. She changes clothes a lot. Sam seems increasingly depressed. Sam stalks a woman with blue high heels. And...

Well, I don’t think I can go on. It’s really more or less a Dick and Jane book for the tragically hip and disaffected. The best I can say for it is that it doesn’t seem dated. This kind of shallowness is timeless.

Here’s a quote from a chapter about Sam's problems with a feature about hip bulimia:

“Sam hung up the phone and returned to the piece he had been editing, a bulimic’s guide to the best restaurant bathrooms in New York. Photographs of the facilities accompanied the copy and he spread them out on his desk next to the neatly typed paragraphs--he hadn’t touched them yet. Now he stared blankly at the captions for ten minutes before standing up and growling, ‘Where’s John?’”

Yup, it seems that Sam wanted photos not just of upscale restaurants. Diners would make the whole thing somehow more hip.

Enough of that. I'm done! I am so glad I never worked at a boutique or wrote about bathrooms. Will Sam and Amanda stay together? Do I care? I do, however, have two more Bantam New Fiction paperbacks from the sale, so stay tuned to the Literature of Emptiness (let's hope it's not that).

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