THE SAVAGE GIRL
by Alex Shakar (HarperCollins, $26) “Falling Out of Fashion: Stories of Identity and Transformation” with Alex Shakar and Trisha R. Thomas Stafford Stage, 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m. Sun., Oct. 21
ADVERTISING is schizophrenic. In case you’re a shopper who doesn’t analyze the ads she sees, consider these examples: a partygoer swigging from a bottle of nonalcoholic beer; a barbecue at which everyone’s relishing meatless burgers; a model, sitting with her bare back pressed against the soiled side of an automobile, sporting an obscenely expensive dress smudged by grease. One character from Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl defines this schizophrenia as “paradessence,” the “two opposing desires . . . [a product] . . . can promise to satisfy simultaneously.” In his debut novel, Shakar brandishes a sharp pen to nail this paradox of consumerism to the page, and as it squirms, we watch it ooze the absurdity it’s made of.
Like most of us, Ursula Van Urden didn’t think of such subjects when she moved to Middle City, a futuristic American metropolis built on the slope of a volcano. Shakar’s 29-year-old protagonist hit town to investigate what went amiss with her younger sister Ivy, a celebrated model who ended up in a mental institution after taking a razor to various sections of her body. Rather than return to her life as a failed artist (what she humorously calls “a boondoggle, her own personal Somalia, an effort to save a seething mass of humanity with a compass and a bowie knife”), Ursula settles for a job as a “trend spotter” at the firm Tomorrow, Ltd., which, under the tutelage of the impeccably groomed yet morally flawed president, Chas Lacouture, predicts fads so other companies can market them. Initially enabling Ursula to see her surroundings in a more fashion-savvy way, her new career finally warps her into a pessimist calloused by the discovery of what people will perpetrate to sell a product. She herself isn’t immune to cruelty, as her sketches of a homeless, pigeon-hunting “savage girl” (d)evolve into an ad campaign for diet water that involves her mentally unsound sister posing as a horny primitive.
Ursula’s not the only one gleaning knowledge about the world of advertising: We readers feel like more self-aware buyers by novel’s end, what with Shakar’s numerous insights into the hollowness of a materialistic society, the fleetingness of style, and the aforementioned paradoxical essence of every product. Shakar also saves space for less obvious, more optimistic takes on consumerism, usually voiced by Javier, an idealistic co-worker and too-brief fling of Ursula’s. He recalls growing up a street punk and how his peers’ chameleonlike appearances caused him to realize that, “the imagination required for these kids to re-create themselves through fashion would heighten their sense of what was possible in adulthood. . . . And the courage it took for them to bear the scorn of their parents, teachers, and peers would in adulthood serve them as courage to fight for all their visions of what was admirable and beautiful and right.”
SHAKAR’S INTELLIGENCE impresses, as does his exquisitely descriptive prose. He can pack a single sentence with both depth and beauty: “In a rare swath of sunlight the buildings bristle all the way down the West Slope, like some gleaming torture apparatus for giants.” But sadly, a big brain and a detail-snagging pen do not necessarily a strong novel make. With all the ink he exerts on irony and “post-irony,” perhaps Shakar can appreciate the criticism that his work suffers from the same schizophrenia supposedly found in every product. The more formidable part of the book reads like a cultural critic’s essay on consumerism, while the other, underdeveloped portion comes off as a contrived tale about Ursula’s attempt to reconcile with the real world of supply and demand. Rather than give us a glimpse into the human condition, Shakar’s characters serve as puppets through which the author spouts his worries and dreams for capitalist society. Chas and Co. aren’t the only ones exploiting Ivy’s vulnerable psyche and easy sex appeal.
Could The Savage Girl‘s schizophrenia be one grand wink from its author? Maybe. Does the work falter because of this schizophrenia? Undoubtedly. The crucial element missing from Shakar’s surprisingly tiresome novel is the same element that, even more than cunning ad campaigns, inspires many of us to visit the mall: fun.