[16 February 2009]
America’s recent history might well be defined as the occlusion of landscape and time. The geography of John Updike’s Pennsylvania chill or Joan Didion’s vividly colored California still exist, of course, but they seem irrelevant to our everyday experiences. Americans now live in interchangeable suburbs, shop in franchised strip malls, and constantly swim through the same seamless flow of digital sounds and images that define the lives of the nation from one coast to another, blotting out the land with a media utopia—everywhere but necessarily nowhere—and Dave Housley calls this new reality home in his collection of hilarious short stories, Ryan Seacrest is Famous.
Ryan Seacrest, the obsequious host of American Idol and face of the E! channel, effortlessly stands for this world in the eponymous story, but Seacrest’s real significance is made manifest most powerfully by Housley’s alternative future, in which Jack Kerouac is alive and unreasonably healthy. “Jack Kerouac and the Amazing MegaFlex” imagines the prophet of beatitude “as informercial king, endorser of Jack Kerouac’s Amazing MegaFlex, pusher of MegaBars, MegaDrinks, and MegaMeals, Nike endorsed fitness celebrity beamed into millions of homes each day through the miracle of cable television and the Internet.”
Essentially, Housely uses Kerouac to describe what has happened to America with the rise of ubiquitous media that endlessly praises the corporate injunction to masturbatory self-improvement as consumption. For devoted readers of Kerouac this is painful, for Housely is in touch with a muted but undeniable strain in Kerouac’s work, that gee-wiz reverence for a sentimentalized America, an unselfconscious hokeyness, an uncritical worship of big culture. Does Kerouac miss his bohemian days? “No, I don’t miss it” he emphatically replies. I don’t miss the loneliness of rejection or the circus of what they told me was success.” After all, in his new incarnation as a fitness celebrity his program and products “matter to millions of people who use Jack Kerouac’s Amazing MegaFlex to make their lives better. To get stronger. Fitter. Healthier, Happier. And sexier!”
Certainly Ryan Seacrest himself is one of those fitter and sexier consumers of Kerouac’s new gospel, and the title story is narrated by Burns, a nostalgic, wanna-be bohemian who failed to notice America changing. Burns is a thirty-something has-been going through a midlife crisis as he realizes that, indeed, Ryan Seacrest is famous:
This was not always the case. Not when they were both students at South Atlanta High School and the the University of Georgia. Then, Seacrest was a geek, a quiet misfit prone to waring the wrong shirt, Madonna instead of Metallica, flimsy silk instead of more workmanlike flannel. He was lost, an amusing after thought, a nonfactor. Burns was the one with the garage band, the starting spot on the basketball team. The cute girlfriend who, in fact, now slumbers away her nights and days as his wife. Seacrest was like a character from one of those John Hughes movies, always trying too hard, wearing those old man hats, the plaid pants and the ruffled shirts and the baby blue shoes. Always with that too-thought-out wackiness, his persona copied whole from videos and bad sitcoms.
Housley perfectly captures the turn in American culture away from bohemian romance and towards the Disney revolution that began with the ‘90s boy band craze. Burns the authentic metalhead doesn’t have a chance. At the college radio station Burns had a show called “The Metal Experience”, but it was Seacrest who saw the future with “Dancin’ Tuesday Afternoons”. “Burns would see him waiting by the little entryway, a stack of albums at his feet, his hair teased to ape the swoops and waves of the latest dance band, glittery jacket reflecting the fluorescent light like a low-rent disco ball.”
But if Seacrest is a perfect simulacrum, copying his personality from the movies, Burns is oppressed by media, indeed, possessed not only by his all consuming jealousy of Seacrest, his compulsion to read In Touch magazine, but also tortured by the voice of Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heros: “‘I believe somebody is becoming ob-se-ess-ed,’ says Klink. Anybody but Klink, Burns thinks, with his sing-songy diction, that goddamn Nazi Freud accent.”. In Housley’s world, the bohemians have lost, and how could it be otherwise for characters who have seen, internalized, and even fantasize about every episode of Hogan’s Hero’s, Gilligan’s Island, and the original Star Trek?
In “Fight Club Club”, we see the same dynamics again, as young men unable to find meaningful lives in the consumer culture simply and laughably rehearse that alienation all over again by mindlessly trying to imitate David Fincher’s film, as if obsession with these images could be a way into a meaningfully textured life. Housley realizes just how deeply and unconsciously our unrelenting exposure to media has informed our lives, replacing landscape and time with the ubiquity of corporate sounds and images that structure our feelings, and by drawing this out, writing it big, he forces us to laugh about it.
In the opening lines of “The Movie Soundtrack of Our Lives” he writes, “The Movie Soundtrack to Our Lives will be warm, funny, raucous, and soulful. Mostly, however, like the relationship that spawned the movies that required the soundtrack, it will be bittersweet.” Even those characters who bravely try to game the system, to triumph over the horrors of media with total mercenary irony are profitably devoured.
In perhaps the most inspired story in the collection, “Namaste Bitches”, a sex-bomb Nepalese immigrant named Himani tries to beat the images makers at their own game, calling the bluff of the reality-TV show Prince Charming II.
We are the final three. Emily, Martie, Himani. In a week, one of us will be engaged to a millionaire. “Prince Charming.” Bruce. She will receive a diamond the size of a Skittle, a brand-new Ford minivan, and a year’s supply of SlimLine FatBlocker III. These are the things that are guaranteed. What’s not written is the rest of it, all the wild roaming possibility in a full fifteen minutes of America semi-celebrity: the cover of In Touch , morning coffee with Meredith and Matt, red carpets, open bars, five star hotels Maxim and Playboy and paparazzi in the hedges.
Himani manages to convince the show she is the daughter of a Nepalese king, making her, of course, an actual princess, and how could the producers resist, even when the brute facts begin to assert themselves: “The truth is,” Himani confides to the reader, “when we left Kathmandu I was twelve and already hated momos along with air pollution, wild dogs, eighteenth century politics, and everything else about our third world ex-Shangri La.” The world she has chosen, though, is almost certainly worse: “I wait for sleep to come. The neon sign pulses on off on. ‘Great Food and Fun at Friday’s.” Who would put this in a bedroom? But it’s not a bedroom, I remind myself. It’s a set. And it’s not just a light. It is product placement.”
Housely’s stories are almost all irresistibly funny. Frogs write back to princesses, wrestlers sellout, combat photographers long for disaster, D.J.s go psychotic, clowns break all the rules, and Jimmy Hendrix is alive with a twelve-step-program. America, Housely seems to say, has finally and decisively opted to be totally popcorn, as the narrator of “Are you Street of Popcorn?” cries out in his moment of ultimate crises, we are all popcorn now: “‘Royale with cheese … Space, the final frontier’ I shout. ‘Stacy’s Mom has got it going on! . .. These Pretzles are making me thirsty! You Bastard you killed Kenny!’”