At Book Expo America this past June, hundreds of glossy copies of the galleys for Alex Shakar’s first novel flew out of the HarperCollins booth on the McCormick Place convention floor and into the eager hands of book buyers, sales reps, editors, journalists, and other architects of the literary zeitgeist. A bemused Shakar stood in the middle of the throng, shaking hands and looking a little dazed.
The machinery working to turn Shakar into the next big thing had clicked into high gear, and it hasn’t stopped since. His book, The Savage Girl, is a fiercely funny satire of marketing and consumerism set in a dystopian city perched on the slope of a belching, toxic volcano under the watchful gaze of a statue of God. The early critical response glows with comparisons to Pynchon and DeLillo. The embossed jacket of the finished product is dressed up with blurbs from Kurt Anderson and Jonathan Franzen. In the last two months the 33-year-old author has done interviews with New York, Time Out New York, and Details, not to mention the New York Daily News and numerous other papers. A nine-city book tour kicks off on Thursday, October 11, with a 7:30 reading at Barbara’s in Oak Park. He’ll do another reading Friday, November 2, at 57th Street Books.
But on September 11 everything changed, and when the haze and confusion cleared enough for critics to try and make themselves useful, there was one overwhelming conclusion: “One good thing could come from this horror,” huffed Time’s Roger Rosenblatt. “It could spell the end of the age of irony.” “I think it’s the end of the age of irony,” puffed Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter. “Last week’s calamity,” blew Janet Maslin in the September 20 New York Times, “has insured instant obsolescence for certain kinds of artistic enterprise. And at first glance Alex Shakar’s first novel would appear to be a prime paper-and-ink casualty of these drastically changing times.”
The “end of irony,” however, is both the novel’s central theme and the marketing concept upon which much of the action hangs. Shakar’s story concerns the fumbling efforts of a disaffected perpetual grad student named Ursula Van Urden to find significance in her life. To that end–perhaps misguidedly–she takes a job as a trendspotter, one of those marketing professionals charged with sniffing out the future and selling it to the present. She and her coworkers comb the city–taking deadpan notes on breakfast foods, hairstyles, astrological iconography, laundry detergent, moon boots, white contact lenses, and the potential crossover appeal of the Arab kaffiyeh as fashion statement–in an effort to conjure a postironic world. Ursula’s pet subject, a homeless, feral teenager dressed in animal skins, becomes the unwitting inspiration for a marketing campaign pushing diet water.
Shakar’s story expands to touch on everything from supermodels and 24-hour Web broadcasting to the relative evils of marketing to children and the inherent coolness of stuff from Japan. Not to mention the clubbing habits of “the girls who wear pigtails and over-the-knee stockings [and] their sworn enemies, the girls who wear ponytails and just-under-the-knee stockings.” As one might expect from a biopsy of the cultural moment just past, the book also makes room for idle references to terrorists, Armageddon, and bombs.
But while the novel’s set pieces unfold in the ultrajaded corners of establishments with names like the Sarin Spa and the Pangloss Hotel, the steady heart of the story beats around Ursula’s earnest quest for truth and beauty and meaning.
“I’m not as convinced as Maslin that we’re in an entirely different era now,” says Shakar. “But it’s definitely a caesura, and it’s definitely a pause that has given us maybe the opportunity to look at ourselves and see ourselves more clearly.” He cautiously suggests that the rush to relegate irony to the trash heap of history may be premature. “I intended the novel in part to be about how our culture is trying to find the right sort of balance between irony and earnestness. And how–throughout the novel–Ursula perceives this culture to be just supersaturated with irony and predicting that it just can’t last.”
Shakar moved to Chicago from Austin in 1996, after completing a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Texas. His thesis, a collection of short stories entitled City in Love, won the National Fiction Competition and was published that same year by FC2 (then based at Illinois State University in Normal). He started work on “a terrible draft” of The Savage Girl while still in Austin, but he did the bulk of the writing as a doctoral candidate at UIC, from which he should–in a few months–receive a PhD in English. The finished novel is his “creative dissertation.”
Supporting himself on a teaching assistant’s stipend, he immersed himself in Advertising Age, Ad Week, Tom Frank’s The Conquest of Cool, and the writings of Alvin Toffler and Ernest Dichter, “the father of motivation research.” He also spent a lot of time hanging out at Urbus Orbis, and remembers a period about four years ago when trendspotters began cruising the Wicker Park coffee shop on a daily basis. One day a group of them approached Shakar.
“I thought, ‘This is great–here I am sitting here and I’m writing a book on them, so I’m just going to have fun with them. I’m not going to give away any useful information to them, but I’m going to milk them for information.'”
But things took an unexpected turn: “They started asking me questions I didn’t anticipate, like ‘What is your worldview?’ ‘What do you hope to do with your life?’…And of course I started getting carried away and I actually started talking to them about things that mattered to me. And then, very casually, one of them said, ‘I like your shoes–what kind of shoes are those?’ And I said, ‘Oh, they’re Australian sheepherder’s boots.’ And they just stopped. And they looked at each other like, bingo. They knew–they’d gotten exactly what they were looking for. And it was utterly humiliating for me, because I realized in that moment that they had found the product that, unbeknownst to me, I romanticized and that I made a part of my identity somehow.”
A variant on this encounter appears in the book, in a scene in which Ursula accosts an intriguing young man at the airport to inquire about his scuffy boots, and then realizes with bittersweet clarity that he’s probably not on furlough from the Peace Corps; he probably bought his “Mauritanian jungle boots” in Peoria. But, she thinks, “He’s proud of those boots–so what. They make his life a little more bearable. Even though they’re only a surface, a stand-in for heroic adventure. Even though there are no jungles in Mauritania.”
“I guess that’s what I was trying to wonder about in the book,” says Shakar. “Whether our increasing tendency to express ourselves through our purchases gives us power or leeches power away from us.” The novel doesn’t offer any definitive conclusions. Instead, it celebrates the paradox of postirony, which is itself the logical extension of the novel’s fanciful marketing philosophy of “paradessence”–that every product “has a paradoxical essence,” two contradictory elements that make up its core. To successfully sell a given product to the public, the marketer must capture and exploit that product’s paradessence. Thus, an ad campaign for coffee simultaneously promises stimulation and relaxation; the pleasures of eating ice cream stem from the tension between adult memories of the innocence of childhood and the keen sensuality of the ice-cream-eating experience.
“Postirony,” preaches Ursula’s boss, “seeks not to demystify but to befuddle, not to synthesize opposites, but to suspend them, keeping open all possibilities at once….Through consumption, consumers will be gods; outside of consumption they will be nothing: a perpetual oscillation between absolute control and absolute vulnerability, between grandeur and persecution.”
On September 10, Shakar was in New York City to attend a memorial service for his editor, Robert Jones, a HarperCollins heavyweight whose stable also included Denis Johnson, Russell Banks, Oscar Hijuelos, Francine Prose, and A.M. Homes. The next morning he was at his parents’ house in Brooklyn, packing.
“I was about to leave for the airport,” he says, “and we heard the explosion, and we thought it was a thunderstorm or something, but it was [a beautiful day]. And we went up on the roof and saw the towers on fire and there was a cloud of smoke coming over our rooftops and a cloud of papers–like thousands and thousands of papers….It was just awful. And then it got worse.”
He and his father watched as the twin towers collapsed. The next day he went to try and volunteer at several hospitals. “They asked me what skills I had,” he says, “and I said, ‘Well…I can write. I have some computer skills….And I know a little French.’… And there’s nothing anybody could do except for the firemen and the policemen, and we all felt really kind of hopeless, and then we all went home and turned on the TV and there’s Giuliani saying, ‘We have all the volunteers we need. What the rest of you need to do is go out and go shopping. Just go about your normal lives.’
“And it occurred to me that this is a whole new wrinkle–or not new, it’s something I touched on in the book–this kind of conflation of our ideas of citizenship and consumerism. Like, being a citizen and being a consumer are more and more like the same thing. That what we as Americans are supposed to do now in this time of crisis is go out and go shopping.”