Dear Daughter. By Elizabeth Little. Viking. $26.95.
The Perfect Stranger. By Wendy Corsi Staub. Harper. $7.99.
What is it with Americans and celebritrash? Lacking a hereditary aristocracy – the Rockefeller and Kennedy names having been largely tarnished over the years – more and more people seem to gravitate to a focus on people of no distinction whatsoever. They are the “famous for being famous.” Or the ones who say words that other people write while standing where other people tell them to stand and dressing the way other people tell them to dress while a camera captures all of it. Or sometimes the ones who can push a large round object through a hoop or knock a smaller round object into a hole in the ground or beef up to grotesque proportions and carry a non-round object across an arbitrary line. These celebritrash, who live grotesque lives of entitlement that, together with their obscene wealth, put them completely and forever out of touch with the existence of those who obsess about them, have spawned entire cottage industries of celebritrash photography, celebritrash rumor and innuendo, celebritrash magazines, celebritrash television – and celebritrash thriller and mystery books, replete with pop-culture references and would-be with-it narration and make-believe insight into the ways in which the celebritrash think (when they think at all) and behave (or, for one must have titillation, misbehave).
The problem with celebritrash as central characters in books is that, in real life – or life as real as publicists and media hacks allow anyone to see – the celebritrash are not very interesting. Think about asking any celebritrash about anything other than what he/she/it is known for – that is, anything but partying or drugs or moving some round or roundish object here or there. Count on a vacant stare, a prolonged “huhhhhhhhhh?” and maybe an offer of some substance designed to enhance or diminish your and his/her/its consciousness. No real answers there, right? But the nearly inevitable vacancy (“nearly” because there are always, of course, exceptions), while perfectly acceptable and perfectly expectable in the real world, leaves writers with few places to go. A whole book of “look at him/her/it!” and “huhhhhhhhhh?” would get pretty boring pretty quickly. And books are for people who, you know, read, so boredom is less acceptable than on, say, television.
So authors such as Elizabeth Little and Wendy Corsi Staub are obliged to reinvent celebritrash in order to make their books, you know, readable. Little, in her debut novel, turns out to be better than Staub at this. Dear Daughter is a typical modern whodunit in which the protagonist, Janie Jenkins, mighta coulda dunnit but maybe didn’t, and after her release from prison on a technicality, she sets out to uncover her past and find out more about her murdered mother and discover whether she herself maybe dunnit after all. And if not, maybe she can learn about herself in the process of discovering who diddit. No, scratch that – even Little doesn’t make this piece of celebritrash that self-aware or self-motivated. Basically, post-prison Janie is being pursued by the usual celebritrash followers, including one who makes explicit and dire threats that for some reason Janie never reports to anybody; since her release, Janie’s got nothing to do; so she decides to do stuff in a place (South Dakota) where beautiful celebritrash never ever go. Why there? Because of the usual-for-the-genre cryptic comment she overheard from her mother just before mom’s untimely and exceedingly messy demise. Janie’s quest (nah; too arty; say “search”) leads her to the proverbial Small Town Filled with Dark Secrets and the equally proverbial People Who Are Not What They Seem to Be, and to the inevitable Confrontation with Her Past. All the available clichés are trotted out here, but by George and oh my goodness, they’re handled so neatly and entertainingly that it’s easy to forget that they are clichés. Points and props and a shout-out to Little for that. What she has done is to make Janie not particularly sympathetic – except in the “little girl lost” and “protagonist in danger” clichés of the thriller genre – but so improbable that following her escapades becomes a real pleasure. Janie, you see, is not only an actress in professional (pre-prison) and personal life, assuming and discarding personalities as often as she changes clothes, but is also a kind-of intellectual. She has been schooled in many subjects and has actually retained some knowledge. This leads to some hilarious writing. It is barely possible that celebritrash might need/want to know about some aspects of home decorating, if only to talk to their decorators: “To my left was the salon – well, you might call it the sitting room, but in my opinion any room that contains a recamier can only be called a salon – and to my right was the reception area. There, at a Hepplewhite desk, sat a slender girl with a paperback book…” But it is absurd to imagine celebritrash “trying really hard not to do this math” of the time since his/her/its last cigarette, then instantly doing the math mentally and giving the result in hours, minutes and seconds. And it is even more absurd to imagine celebritrash thinking and writing this way: “I took a long sip of water, because as Sun Tzu said, the general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand, and also the general who hydrates has a nicer complexion.” Or this way: “Hope is asymptotic in its decline.” Or: “I stepped into the kind of room you can feel in your nose hair.” Or: “The house stank of liquored-up Kool-Aid and delusions of invincibility.” Or: “He could be my very own Renfield. If he did a good job, maybe I’d even give him a spider or two.” The writing here makes for a compulsively readable book, one of those “guilty pleasure” novels that are so hard to put down – not because of the plot, whose twists and turns are comparatively mundane, but because of the sheer style of the thing. And if there’s one thing celebritrash know, it’s style. Some authors, clearly including Little, know it, too.
Wendy Corsi Staub has more authorial experience than Little does, but her (+++) The Perfect Stranger is less interesting than Little’s book and not nearly as intriguing a take on the celebritrash world. Partly that is because the celebritrash character here is only one of an ensemble: the book is about five women who meet as bloggers about their breast cancer, not really knowing anything about each other beyond the diagnosis. One of them turns out to be celebritrash – and a gigantic and obvious red herring, to boot. Indeed, the obviousness of the plot and the interactions of the women, and the unsurprising story arc from trust to extreme paranoia, get in the way of reader involvement in this book: you can almost see Staub pointing her author’s finger here and there, telling readers to look in this wrong place and that one and then the other. The wrong places are so obviously wrong that the book creaks instead of pulling readers headlong into a place of danger. The characters never really come alive, either: Alabama housewife Landry Wells, the primary protagonist, is better fleshed out than the others, but neither Kay nor Elena nor Meredith (whose murder in the first pages sets the plot in motion) is ever fully formed in terms of motivation or background. And celebritrash Jaycee, who gets a fair amount of time in the pages to go through typical celebritrash contortions of anomie and hysteria – none of them particularly well explained – is almost as obvious and thorough a type as a subsidiary character who has “next victim” written all over him from the moment he first appears. This is one of those books in which one occasionally lurches into the mind of the murderer, but in this case there is not much there there, since the killer’s motivation is unconvincing and the leave-behinds at the murder scenes – yes, this is also a book in which the killer leaves clues – have no clear connection to the murder motive. Staub’s writing tends to be frustratingly sloppy, as when she makes sure that a character hears everything she is being told by phone except, conveniently, for just a couple of words that would solve everything. That is an old, old trope: “I can tell you who the killer really is. Yes, I know who did it. You won’t believe it when I tell you. I’m going to let you know the truth right now. It’s – arrgghhhh!!!” Well, The Perfect Stranger isn’t quite that bad, but portions of it are in that vein. Staub eventually seems tired of the book, too: once the murderer is identified, she simply drops the story, so readers who, against all odds, have become genuinely interested in the characters, get no sense of “what happened afterwards” at all. A quick read that is most interesting for playing into modern fears of the unknown, Internet style, and for using breast cancer as a significant point of connection among its characters, Staub’s book assembles its “thriller” elements too obviously and creakily to provide readers with more than a brief diversion from their everyday lives – or their obsession, if they have one, with the celebritrash world.
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