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Book Reviews

Paul’s Case: The Kingston Letters

by Lynn Crosbie

True Detective

by Byron Rempel

Ecstasy Club

by Douglas Rushkoff

Seven Tattoos

by Peter Trachtenberg

Totem of the Depraved

by Nick Zed

The great events of pop culture generally appear in book form a significant time after they have occurred. Whether these texts are cynical attempts to capitalize on a singular phenomenon (Alanis biographies) or genuine studies of a pop movement such as punk (Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming), it is always the same: first comes the pop and then the literary equivalent of air escaping the paper bag – the culture.

In recent years, however, movies, videos, and even soundtracks, have shown themselves better (and faster) at recording the zeitgeist than any sensory deprived book. After seeing the flick, grooving to the theme song, and acquiring the recommended dosages, of what possible use is the book? This may be why the concept of the “1990s” novel comes off as a bit, well, post-packaged.

Of the books discussed here – chosen for their pop-cult sensibility – two are novels and two are hyped-up memoirs from the dark side of the 1980s. Not incidentally, these last two read as if their authors wrote them while lying on couches drinking V-8s and shaking their heads: Gosh, gee, did I really do that?

Paul’s Case: The Kingston Letters is by far the most unconventional and sincerely controversial of the lot. A Toronto poet and anthologist, Crosbie, like her contemporaries, holds up the recent past to careful scrutiny. But there are no drugs in her story, no booze, no down-and-out youngsters dressing retro. The narrative doesn’t go from Point A to Point B; nor does it revel in the joys and tragedies of steady drug use before age 30.

Paul’s Case investigates the transformation of a despised serial killer into a pop-culture icon.

“I will present you in fragments,” writes an unidentified woman in “Fear,” the first of 52 fictional letters to Bernardo, “and make a figment of you.” Using letters, cartoons, pseudo-porn, and an excerpt from Bernardo’s unfinished novel, Crosbie portrays a psychopathic killer that doesn’t fit the stereotype. But she also portrays a society fascinated by his crimes, implying that the media coverage of Paul Bernardo’s trial turned it into a kind of sick celebration of his deeds.

In the book, women write letters to Bernardo asking if he watches the same soap opera they do. Other letters skillfully evoke a teenaged girl’s diaries. A female prison guard molests Paul in his cell and sends a letter about the experience to a porn magazine. Bernardo’s statements at his trial pop up randomly in the book in and out of context. They are simply there, forcing the reader to interpret them, and, in the process, consider the cult status they will likely attain.

Writer Nick Zed shares Lynn Crosbie’s interest in pop culture’s darker qualities, and in his memoir, Totem of the Depraved, maps the iconography of the post-punk, self-destruct scene of the late-1970s and early-1980s. Underground stars like Lydia Lunch and G.G. Allin figure prominently in this terse but to-the-point account of a life spent making Super 8 flicks and hanging out with attractive women. But Zed, a filmmaker, and admitted lech, is thankfully unreflective. Like Crosbie (whose book is being pitched as social criticism), he’s not so much interested in the truth, in substance, or in details, but one can draw a certain pleasure from his rough interpretation of the bigger picture.

The same can’t be said of Seven Tattoos, a “memoir in the flesh” by Peter Trachtenberg, whose conceit is to take readers on a guided tour of tattoo parlours in Borneo, New York, Baltimore, etc., where he acquired his seven tattoos. Trachtenberg proceeds to describe how each tattoo represents some important event or aspect of his life: throwing rocks at Richard Nixon in 1972; the years he spent in the 1980s as a junkie; an excruciatingly detailed account of the sad (but by no means exceptional) relationship with his stereotypical Jewish parents. But for all his travelling, experience with drugs, and interest in tattoos, Trachtenberg comes across as a bore, his self-absorption only infrequently masked by writerly insight.

The current infatuation among the under-20 set with mind-altering chemicals is the subject of a new novel by Douglas Rushkoff, the author of Media Virus and Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace. Narrated by Zack, a college student engaged in high-tech psychedelic experiments in a Los Angeles warehouse, Ecstasy Club is populated by brilliant boys who believe in a mesh of conspiracy theories, sample every drug under the sun, have orgies with the girls they know, and hold nightly raves to help them “break through.” Pretty rebellious stuff. But Zack is no G.G. Allin. In the end – all the sex, paranoia, and drugs notwithstanding – Zack and his buddies reaffirm traditional values in a way that would make it difficult to class them as anything but upstanding citizens of Newt Gingrich’s America (therein, I suppose, laying the groundwork for the inevitable movie script).

Equally unthreatening and conventional is Roger Bushman, the 25-year-old protagonist and would-be private dick of True Detective, British Columbia writer Byron Rempel’s first novel. Bushman is the Jim Carrey of Canadian X-lit, a fainting, face-pulling, getting-lucky kinda guy. He philosophizes about the X generation, lives in poverty, and ends each night drunk, high, and staying over at the apartment of a beautiful former lover. But if True Detective’s running gag works, it’s largely because the sex, drugs, and alcohol in this novel function as plot devices, not the plot itself. Bushman watches black-and-white detective classics and idealizes Raymond Chandler, but Rempel handles the cultural baggage with aplomb, making pointed reference to the travails of a generation that longs for the heady excitement and idealism of the past, but understands it no better than a Humphrey Bogart drawl or a Hardy Boys mystery.

With the exception of Paul’s Case, these books lack the moral (or immoral) impetus of truly great fiction. To varying degrees, they are unable to rise to the challenge of a medium that does well to leave torrid sex, vacuous drug use, and graphic violence to more blatant forms of entertainment. But as Crosbie’s novel so adeptly demonstrates, the mystique of pop is such that no matter how ephemeral it seems, its reincarnation is inevitable: no prison can confine pop’s icons, no mere book can capture its cultural carnage.