One of the guiltiest postmodern pleasures is to take familiar stories and update them to fit our genre-crossing, coke-snorting, contemporary selves. Politically Correct Bedtime Stories salved the children inside; illuminating the anti-feminist, xenophobic flaws of yore. It showed us that we, too, could enjoy Snow White, as long as she derides the dwarves for trying to make her a slave to their penises.
Another such update can be found in John Reed’s The Whole, loosely based around Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Published by Pocket Books and MTV Books, The Whole takes the familiar story—eliminating the key stoner sensibilities—and uses it to frame a satire that’s engaging, inconsistent, and depressing.
“Thing,” as she is called, is a trendy 23-year-old Jersey girl discovered at a televised, Spring Break contest, sponsored by none other than MTV. After attending “fatt camp” (misspelled as it is because, to Thing, “fat” is a four letter word,) Thing conquers the hearts and minds of horny 15-year-olds everywhere by sporting designer thong bikinis and reporting on such important events as the X-Games and the Grammys. Prone to the naivete of a budding journalist, she reasons that wearing a bikini on national TV is a small step toward superstardom, or at least the Meredith Viera-type celebrity to save her from long lines at New York clubs. She’s perky, augmented, if a little bit old; with the enthusiasm of Suzanne Somers in a Thighmaster commercial.
We witness the wise and fall of her celebrity in the first 25 pages, after which her bare bronzed ass finds itself kicked to the curb as a casualty of the ratings. If you’re anything like me, or half the females in the developed world, you’ll cheer her imminent fall from stardom. The author seems to take particular delight in highlighting her less-than-perfect vocabulary, which stemmed from an adolescence rooted in giggles and peroxide.
One of the charming but obnoxious features of the narrative, which spends a great deal of its time in New York City, is the keen attention to the particularities that define a place. Reed seems to be writing for the Manhattan native. Thing attends a very trendy party at a very trendy (actual) NYC nightclub called Eugene, where she befriends a large black-haired rabbit called Black Rabbit. He procures a pink cocktail to the washed-up star, who reveals her true desire to help people. (It’s well known among everyone in her glitzy world that “helping people” means “gaining credibility”.) When prompted for, exactly, what she was searching for as a VJ (Video Journalist, not Video Jockey), she responded, desperately, “The middle! I want to find the middle.”
The rest of the book accompanies Thing through her dysfunctional inner monologues, as she proceeds from washed up VJ to Goddess of Humanity. (I hate to spoil the ending, but I’m not joking.) She rooms with a pierced Rhode Island escapee named Pancho, who comforts her through her troubled career and ultimately gets kicked out the door on her way back to MTV. The central theme of the novel is a hole that opens up in the town of Prairie Dog, Middle America. The Peterson family, spearheaded by young Bobby Peterson, gets sucked into a hole in the earth that first engulfs their suburban house and eventually parts of the town and the world. As Thing’s narcissistic successor perishes in an attempt to report on the hole, Thing is called in to fill the desperate void in the “Viacom-munity.” (“Yes, I know leaving was for the best. No, I know the company didn’t want to impede my growth—and it didn’t, I mean, I really found myself…Yes, I know, for the journalism… Oh yes, wiggle more when I talk. Okay.”)
With her MTV empire taking orders again, Thing succumbs to each hare-brained V-Journalistic whim, which lands her where else but Roswell, New Mexico, and the center of a vast global conspiracy going back to the lost city of Atlantis.
If it sounds complicated, it is. Or maybe it’s not. That is, the book’s meaning has layers upon layers upon layers of ... nothing. At its core, Reed’s novel is a critique of contemporary American consumerist values. As an author, he should be commended for having the bravery to take celebrity worship to its logical end—the celebrity actually becomes a goddess, and actually is worshipped. His grasp of suburban America is as strong as his grasp on New York. He balances his critique equally between highlighting the suburban herd mentality and, well, the urban herd mentality and the people who control it. While Joe Middle America enjoys his packaged MTV music festival next to growing Gap in the earth, New Yorkers are finding their centers through aromatherapy and yoga before working on TRL. In The Whole, both of these cultures point to a vacuous American middle that lacks any sort of real spirituality.
While the point of the novel is duly taken, one wonders exactly why anybody, especially anybody published by MTV Books, needs to point this out. Reed has not given us any-Thing new to think about, but has extended our thoughts on the subject to consider the worst possible outcomes. It’s an extended, trippy “be careful what you wish for” story. The trip is entertaining, if not a bit bogged down in tangents, and passes faster than an episode of The Real World. If you need another reminder of what it means to be Comcast American, read this book. It will doubtlessly prove fascinating to those not yet spoiled by media theory, or years of living in the USA. For those of us who don’t, let’s sit back, relax, and watch another episode of The Surreal Life. We deserve it.