I'll Never Be a Final Girl; or, On Not Reading Justin Cronin's Excellent Novel, The Passage.

Justin Cronin,  The Passage (Ballantine: 2010), 784 pages.


Jamie Lee Curtis, as "final girl" Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978).



I just couldn't do it. But I did try. I'd heard great things about The Passage, the 700+ page thriller by Justin Cronin. I checked the ebook out from my local public library and downloaded it to my Kindle and began tearing through it like a death-row inmate infected by a terrifyingly aggressive Amazonian bat virus... YIKES.

I've had this problem before, in fact I've had it all my life: I'm too squeamish for horror. The only scary movie I truly love is The Shining, which is less a horror movie than a Kubrick movie. All his movies are scary in some way (though The Shining is much less scary when recut as a family-friendly comedy, as seen here). The only reason I got any enjoyment out of Halloween, the 1978 John Carpenter movie, was because I was able to watch it on a meta-level, with Jamie Lee Curtis as the classic "final girl", the victim who overcomes her torturers, thanks to Carol Clover's fantastic book, Men, Women & Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film. (Alert: BEST BOOK TITLE EVER).

I tried to read Stephen King's The Stand and quit once it got too... horrific. But I had high hopes for The Passage, perhaps because I thought it would be more of a dystopian fantasy along the lines of The Hunger Games (a novel about children killing each other - is there anything more horrifying?), which I was able to appreciate, if not enjoy.

The Passage begins with a classic Hubris of Man setup: American scientists hacking through the South American jungle in search of a miracle virus that will cure cancer and, possibly, death. Where are the bioethicists when you need them? Not in this scene, unfortunately, and thus a killer virus begins its journey from hidden bat cave to the rest of the planet. We then cut to various character setups: the early life of young Amy Bellafonte, the girl who will save the world; Brad Wolgast, the FBI agent who will save Amy; etc. We see the initial stages of disaster unfolding faster than the general public realizes or could even imagine and it's thrilling, as a thriller should be. The writing is perfect: fast but not cheap. A young cop is described as "a fresh recruit with a face pink as a slice of ham" and storm clouds are "a wall of spring thunderheads ascending from the horizon like a bank of blooming flowers in a time-lapse video."

This was all good. Exciting, fun, great language. But then it got scary. I'm not even going to get into it, because if you like this kind of thing you will read it for yourself and if you don't it will just sound icky. It is icky, but more than that, it's actually frightening. Cronin succeeds in describing an apocalypse that will make you worry not just about bats but about future natural disasters and what happens when the things that keep society glued together break down, from communication pathways (Wolgast realizes things are getting really bad when USA Today is reduced to two short pages) to electrical power plants to food production systems. And VAMPIRES! There, I said it.

I always enjoy the setups more than the outcomes, whether it's Harry Potter first encountering Diagon Alley to buy his wizardry supplies or walking through Dignan's 75-year plan for success in Wes Anderson's first movie, Bottle Rocket (1996), but in the case of horror it turns out it's the only part I am capable of enjoying. The decision to not finish it, however, did allow me the pleasure of spoiling the entire series (The Passage is the first of three novels, two of which have been published so far) by reading its Wikipedia page, something I also do on a guilt-free basis when the Game of Thrones books bog down. I recommend it.

So I apologize, Justin Cronin. You've written a terrific horror novel. It's just too scary to read.

Nevada Girls: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: A Novel


The Flamethrowers: A Novel by Rachel Kushner (Scribner: 2013, 400 pages).


Freeway overpass, Spiral Jetty, you get the idea...


There's a sweet little riff in the second chapter of Rachel Kushner's new novel The Flamethrowers, when the book is still zipping ahead with energy in which Kushner writes of former First Lady Pat Nixon, "Hair dyed the color of whiskey and whipped into an unmoving wave… she was a ratted beauty-parlor tough... from Nevada, like me." This is supposed to be the voice of Reno, the young, Nevada-born aspiring artist at the heart of the novel and as of Chapter 2 I was still reading it that way, but by the end of the novel I stopped believing in that voice, despite how much I admired it.


In list form, The Flamethrowers is about: The 1970s Land Art movement; The meanings of speed vs. stasis; The New York City art scene; Motorcycles; Italian fascism; European student movements; China girls; Female sexuality; Minimalism; Futurism; Global capitalism; Corruption; The Bonneville Salt Flats and the World Land Speed Record. The writing is gorgeous. I could hardly wait to start.


Reno is a young woman on a mission to transcend her station, to get out of the doomed blue-collar world of dirtbikes and cheap beer in which she grew up and create a niche for herself in the art world of 1970s New York. If she can make it there, she can make it anywhere. Strangely, although she does sort of make it there - if you can count going to all the cool parties and sleeping with all the cool artists "making it," which you probably can - she fades as a character once she arrives. She a passive – frustratingly passive – protagonist. Which brings us to Maria Wyeth.


Maria Wyeth is the deader-than-deadpan, self-abnegating antiheroine of Joan Didion's 1970 novel Play It As It Lays and Maria haunts The Flamethrowers like Reno’s more sophisticated twin. Like Reno, Maria Wyeth is a native of Nevada who claws her way to New York City where she is valued for her beauty and carelessly used by abusive men. Both of these characters define themselves by their passivity, their “resigned tranquility,” as Didion puts it. Both women find momentary agency through driving, Reno on a motorcycle and Wyeth in a car through a maze of Los Angeles freeways, and on and on. Lots of similarities. Yet somehow Didion makes Maria Wyeth’s dispassion the subject of the novel; more than a coping mechanism, it’s a rational response to the craziness of the world around her. In Play It As It Lays, the events of the novel are a backdrop to real subject: Maria and her mood. In The Flamethrowers Reno becomes the backdrop.


Reno functions less as a character and more as a stand-in for the author, a partial observer who keeps all her observations – brilliant as they often are – hidden in an internal monologue. It’s a cliché to ask why a reader should care for a character but in this case one wonders: Why do the other characters care for her? “Hmm. Let’s see,” says Reno’s friend Giddle: “You’re young.” Reno is young, beautiful and compliant. That’s why they like her. It gets tiresome. Writing about housewives in the 1950s, Kushner observes: "The woman senses that time is more purely hers if she squanders it and keeps it empty, holds it, feels it pass by, and resists filling it with anything that might put some too-useful dent in its open, airy emptiness." And that’s the problem. Reno doesn’t have to be a hero but after watching her merely float past the action of most of the novel I stopped believing she was capable of the observations Kushner was writing on her behalf.


There’s no question Kushner is a talented observer of people and their peccadilloes, a writer who in less than ten pages can set young Reno up in a romance with a motel maintenance man named Stretch - Stretch! - and make you not only believe it but want to see the Rachel Kushner-directed version of the short film based on the interlude. That film doesn't exist, but if it did I would watch it.


"On occasion I let my thoughts fall into that airy space between me and whatever Stretch's idea of me was," Kushner writes. I know the feeling: ever since finishing The Flamethrowers I've let my thoughts fall into that airy space between the novel and whatever I hoped it might be. The Flamethrowers is worth reading for its gorgeous language and fascinating ideas. But like that hot guy on the motorcycle who becomes the world’s worst boyfriend, it might also break your heart.


The Plastic Prophecy.

If it's December 27th where you are, you've probably seen enough plastic in the past week to last, well forever (I think it lasts forever, anyway). Credit cards, American Girl dolls, race cars, bubble wrap, clamshell packaging... it's all plastic, baby. So it seems an appropriate moment to assess our plastic culture.

My review of sociologist Laurie Essig's new book, AMERICAN PLASTIC: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Search for Perfection (Beacon Books: 2010) appeared in yesterday's Boston Globe - you can read it at this link or below.

BOOK REVIEW: Laurie Essig, American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection

“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word… plastics.” When Mr. McGuire offers this advice, if you can call it that, to young Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 film The Graduate, is it possible he had “boob jobs, credit cards, and our quest for perfection” in mind? “[O]ne cannot understand America,” Laurie Essig writes, “without understanding plastic.” [x] Like Mr. McGuire, Essig believes that understanding plastic is the key to understanding contemporary America. Sound absurd, doesn’t it? But in this fast-paced book, sociologist Laurie Essig makes a strong case for the idea that plastic – both in the form of money (e.g., credit cards and other forms of easy credit) and in the form of surgery (e.g., boob jobs, nose jobs, etc.), has become Americans’ favorite problem-solving tool, whether they can afford it or not. “We wish the world were different. We wish we were different. The solution, it seems, is plastic.”[xiii] Essig’s style is breezy but her message is as pointed as a syringe full of Botox: the American Dream is a myth and our addiction to plastic conspires in obscuring that fact. “Our desire for plastic is the result of massive shifts in our culture and our economy that affect us all. Plastic money covered up the fact that most of us were getting poorer while a few of us were getting richer.” [xiii] Hers is at heart an argument about political economy. Essig’s approach adds a new facet to a growing argument about the complicated web of consumerism, health, and the American ethos of individualism expressed in recent books such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America and Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. As Essig argues, America’s cult of individualism “grew up alongside capitalism to free the state from responsibility to the individual and make the individual see failure as a personal, not a structural, problem.” [25] How all this relates to boob jobs is surprisingly straightforward: “This ideology says that we are responsible for ourselves, and that we all have a chance to make it if we just work hard enough. In this case, the hard work of beauty becomes something we all must do, and if we don’t, then we deserve our low pay, or lack of healthcare, or lonely, unmarried futures.” [25] If at first the reader finds this line of logic hard to take seriously, just spend some time with the many women Essig interviewed for the book (women make up 90 percent of the cosmetic surgery patients [xix]) who explain that they spent thousands of dollars on bigger boobs, smaller noses, and flatter stomachs because they hoped that by looking better they would be less likely to be fired from their jobs. Less likely to be dumped by their husbands. Less likely to hate themselves. It’s a sad story. And a common one. Essig’s strength is her humor, combined with real compassion for and identification with the average American woman who finds it hard to love her own body. She coins a term that’s stayed with me since I finished the book: “ordinary ugliness.” This is the state of being, well, normal: “stretch marks, cellulite, wrinkles, the downward pull of gravity, the realization that our bodies are not and can never be perfect.” [84] Ordinary ugliness has always been with us; it’s just plastic surgery that’s new. Essig notes that when her mother reached late middle age, she “believed it was acceptable to ‘let herself go.’” – to stop dyeing her hair, pulling on a girdle, and wearing uncomfortable shoes. “I don’t know at what age I can stop dying [sic] my hair or working out,” writes Essig, who is in her forties, “but it’s definitely not anytime soon, if ever.” [87] Of course, the next generation of American women – her daughters – started their “beauty work” earlier than their predecessors and will probably keep doing it into very old age. [87] Why? Because despite real advances in American women’s lives, women are still “trapped in a culture that insists happiness can only be obtained through the transformation of the body.” [159] That, plus the fact that we live in a world trying to sell us stuff, constantly. Essig can’t simply blame the media for the problem; as she observes, many of the women who cite the media as the root of their dissatisfaction with their own appearance go on to get unaffordable plastic surgery anyway. As one cosmetic surgery patient explained, ruefully, “The hard part is to distinguish between what I want and what society wants.” [166] In the past decade the popularity of plastic surgery (measured in the number of procedures) has increased by 465 percent. [xiii] Most of those procedures were paid for on credit. [xvii] You may read these statistics and scoff, having never gone in for “a little work” yourself, but as Essig notes, even if you’ve never considered plastic surgery, “chances are you’ve assumed debt” – whether in the pursuit of a house, nicer furniture, or more education – “in order to create a more perfect future.” [xiii] As the Reagan administration dissolved banking regulations in the 1980s and revised the tax code to benefit the richest among us, increasingly poorer working Americans turned to credit to finance their version of the American Dream. And we’re still doing it. Guess what, Benjamin Braddock? Mr. McGuire was right.

You've read the book... now watch the (2-min) movie!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7Jprn7tP_4That's right; it's not just the big Hollywood movies that get their own fancy trailers - now it's books like Shaking the Family Tree, too! The 2-minute video is now available on YouTube right here.

Many of the *real* people featured in the book are also in this film, as well as many of the far-flung places I visited during my research.

Huge thanks to the geniuses at Madhouse Muse for making this lovely film, as well as Matthew Meschery and Billy Bouchard for their contributions to the audio and music. It's so great to have talented friends.

Hope you enjoy it!