Sunday, November 13, 2005

Two novels, fat and thin

Actually, not particularly; but one (the thinner) is much better than the other (the fatter). The great one is Liquor by Poppy Z. Brite, with its appealing pair of main characters and its excellent inside look at the restaurant world (and a lot of gripping books about restaurants are gripping without being particularly good, like this one which I could not put down [I actually totally recommend it, it's compulsive reading] but which relies on a forced narrative structure--will Daniel regain the lost fourth star?--and a heavy use of mind-numbingly boring tape-recorded kitchen exchanges, so it is nice to get a really good one for a change).

Brite's food descriptions are mostly seriously mouth-watering, but my favorites were the ones of things I'd rather see than eat: the St. Joseph's altar with a rosary made of white chocolate and "a cake in the shape of a lamb, frosted white and finished with coconut for wool and jelly-beans for eyes"; the chocolate mold of Napoleon Bonaparte's death mask, filled with a frozen mousse of Napoleon brandy and Camembert ice cream. Funny, smart, plus there's a revolting description of veal kidneys cooked in gin that will really stick with you (the cook's boyfriend has a bite and says it "tastes like a piece of liver marinated in a urinal").

The other one? I couldn't resist it the other day--some novels are just ludicrously incongruous finds in the Harvard stacks, though it is the charm of a really great research library that you never know what you will find on the shelf--I was looking for something quite different but I plucked the supermodel Naomi Campbell's 1994 novel Swan from the C's and have just finished reading it. The copyright page makes it quite clear that the book was really written by Caroline Upcher; if I had to guess, I'd speculate that she tape-recorded a bunch of conversations with Campbell, stuck some of those paragraphs in here and there but mostly just wrote it herself.

And a very good thing too. I really enjoyed it--it's not the kind of thing I usually read, but it now has the retro appeal of the newly extinct species. I am sure people are still writing the odd "shopping and fucking" novel here and there, but they have been largely supplanted by middle-of-the-road chick lit. The best novels that fall under that rubric are of course excellent, but I do feel after reading this that we have lost something by moving to such a resolutely modest and realistic mode. The excesses of the shopping novels can be really delightful; this is actually a very enjoyable read, it's got way too many characters and a completely shambolic plot (charmingly involving a seedy snuff enterprise in which the victims--counterintuitively--are men, though the novelist doesn't make much of this, and irrelevant Yardies and medieval chapels and all sorts of other good things) and an endearingly serious argument about the importance of putting black models on magazine covers and I liked it for its all-round all-over-the-place-ness.

(I will admit that there are a few awful moments. Too much name-dropping, for one thing. One pricelessly awful sentence [only parts are written in the first person, it's a bit of a hodgepodge]: "Mummy had been right. The beastly press hounds were baying for blood already. I saw them as I slipped across 76th Street at Madison. I refused to let them force me to alter my routine. I crossed Madison as I always did to go and look in Givenchy's window. They always compared me to Audrey Hepburn's Givenchy-clad Holly Golightly in the film of Breakfast at Tiffany's, and I suppose I did sort of have something of her dark-haired elfin look." I was also interested to learn that "the basic difference between England and America" is that if you're a model in America you have to give half of what you earn to the agency and they pay thirty percent of that to the IRS, whereas in England you hand over only twenty percent to the agency but have to pay your own tax. But mostly it's not like this at all. My grandmother would have quite liked it.)

I was particularly struck as I read the first hundred pages by what you lose if chick lit becomes the dominant form for popular women's writing: it pretty much means sticking to one woman's story (more on the private-investigator-fiction model, where you hew tightly to one character's point-of-view, than on the post-family-saga multi-plot novel) or perhaps if you're branching out three, whereas this kind of novel blithely takes you all over the world with lots of different characters of different races and nationalities and so on. Go on, admit it, if you're a woman of a certain age--if you were thirteen years old in 1984, like I was--you still find an irresistible glamor to the phrase "Which one of you bitches is my mother?"....

Here's a rather excellent Amazon review of Swan, anyway:

This book was absolutely fabulous! The book is definately a page turner up to the very last page. Naomi weaves the lives of a dozen characters seamlessly. It was very modern and informative. There is a peak at the great exciting and the not so glamorous sides to fashion. The book explains cultural, racially, and international differences thoughts and traditions that just made me think about the role I play as a public viewer and a consumer. Even though it was a fictionalized story there were so many real to life examples of things that happen. It really made me think. I loved the characters, the designs, the designers, the talk of the clothes, romance, sexy scenes(without being trashy), and the kindred networking and friendship between the women characters in the book. I also enjoyed the suspense. Naomi even gives humanity to the most unsavory characters. I hope that Naomi Campbell sends another novel our way. This book is a great read.

And Library Journal rather rudely offers the following:

In her early twenties, Swan is the world's best-known supermodel. Desiring a change, the English-born beauty decides to step down as the sole representative of the Swan beauty line, subsequently triggering a global search for a new Swan girl. Five young models are on the short list, some shy and naive, others poised and assertive, and one bent on a course of self-destruction. As Swan prepares to make some significant changes in her life, rumors about her sister's mysterious death 14 years earlier surface in a menacing manner. Readers are immersed in the internal world of modeling: the fashion designers, bookers, agencies, hair stylists, and photographers. Despite the insider perspective provided by Campbell-herself a supermodel-the narrative is somewhat disjointed, making the various stories difficult to follow. Not an essential purchase.

I still haven't read Jennie Erdal's book Ghosting, just the great excerpts in Granta and elsewhere; I must get it, though. I definitely wouldn't want to ghost someone's novel, but I've always thought it would be appealing to be paid a ton of money to ghost some celebrity's autobiography: it would be interesting to take a folder of clippings and do a lot of hours of interviewing and then try to piece something together that would actually have the person's voice, maybe more than their own writing would even have had. And then the money part would be good too. But it would be satisfying to make something like that come out really well.

(And though I had already checked the book out, I might never have actually gotten around to reading it if I hadn't seen this post at Rake's Progress about Nicole Richie's recently released novel The Truth About Diamonds. Which I am not going to get or read. But though I find it extremely unlikely that someone reading this blog entry is interested in purchasing the volume in question, here's the Amazon link.)

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