When we stopped renting our mother-in-law suite out and decided to turn it into the Great American Dream of a basement den—full bar, skee ball machine, big television with big sound, the works—the very first thing I bought in order to set the proper tone was a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Jeff Goldblum dressed as his character, Grandmaster, from Taika Waititi’s 2017 film, Thor: Ragnarok. There was a classic tuxedo version that was a little more expensive, but we preferred the more Bowie-esque look of the Grandmaster. It gives off some of the same vibes as his character from Earth Girls Are Easy ( Julien Temple, 1988) which is our favorite movie of his—though the competition in that category is fierce.
Meeting a person who doesn’t like Goldblum must be a little bit like meeting a person who doesn’t like dogs (Cf. Chandler Bing of Friends). Imagine Goldblum as a dog. Imagine those wide, warm eyes and that silky coat. Oh, he knows how silky it is, but he won’t lord it over you. He’ll just quietly scoot in for a snuggle on the couch you long ago gave up telling him not to climb up on, contended with your soft, absentminded strokes. When I’m feeling freaked out about something, I often do this little thought exercise of invoking Goldblum in some fabulously surreal form. It’s damned soothing.
Turns out, I’m not the only one who thinks so. It is not hyperbole to say that Helen McClory’s The Goldblum Variations: Adventures of Jeff Goldblum Across the Known (and Unknown) Universe is the best book I have read this year. And it’s September, so that’s really saying something. The book is marketed as pop culture / humor, and more loosely as absurdist fiction. It’s also very fine hybrid poetry, or flash essays, or any other number of mixed genre labels that tote around the enormous yet unacknowledged baggage of being “experimental”. The Goldblum Variations is a thought experiment, but as a work of art, it is not very experimental.
It will be utterly approachable for people who did not go to graduate school, to people who say they “don’t get” poetry, and even people—if such people exist at all—who don’t know or don’t like Jeff Goldblum. McClory has crafted a very fine, lushly sensitive, gently moving series of portraits of a cultural icon. At first, the reader just floats along on the descriptions of what Goldblum is doing, or where he is going, or what he is wearing, or things he has said. These are all probably made up, or else minimally rooted in whatever random snippets of his public life have crossed the author’s path. On page one: “The Jeff Goldblum that wakes up in the morning, opens the curtains and says, softly, ‘Oh!'”
But after drifting pleasurably across the textual equivalent of ASMR (that is, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response), my heart stopped on page eight and I straight-up fell in love with McClory: “Writer of short absurdist fiction, Jeff Goldblum—no, I cannot. I should just stop it here. Look, I’m already getting dizzy. Dizzy and sick. I am thinking too much of his fingers typing through and over my own, sliding into the space where my joints are (although, being longer, the fit is not correct and we hit the keys at a delay from each other). Oh, no, this is just wrong. I apologise for ever beginning of this path.” Sister, let me just say that I have written books about the inner life of Andy Warhol and Tom Petty. I have been there.
She carries on this deliciously parasocial path for another 70 pages or so. Parasocial relationships are the bedrock of celebrity culture. When a fan views a celebrity they have never actually met—let alone befriended—as someone who is personally involved in their life, that’s parasocialism. It’s a precious thing and is generally not sexual in nature. Think about the way Elvis is often literally worshipped by folks who use language evocative of Jesus to describe their connection to the musician.
Indeed, parasocialism often takes on religious symbolism, but McClory is going the other way into a sort of daily engagement function. Think about your favorite sitcom and how sad you were when the series finalé finally aired—like, what am I going to do without Ross and Rachel of Friends? These characters, and often the actors who portray them, end up feeling like real life friends to us.
In meditating on all her invented Jeff Goldblums, McClory easily conveys his unique consistency of form across an incredibly wide variety of content. Here we have Goldblum on a cooking show, Goldblum as a substitute teacher, Goldblum on a treasure hunt, the fragrances and outfits and past lives of Goldblum, and many more adventures—including a choose-your-own. The few more fragmentary or experimental bits like that last one are still quite comprehensible, akin to the clear magic worked by Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler or Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (Pantheon, 2000).
Not many celebrities can withstand the hall of mirrors that parasocialism presents. The closest artwork capturing some of McClory’s brilliant project might be Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay for the Spike Jones’ 1999 movie, Being John Malkovich. But that’s a super sad and often scary film. McClory turns in a crushingly excellent display of metatextual prowess that also manages to be uplifting and fun. The Goldblum Variations is the sweetest kind of adventure. McClory’s quick read delivers the real thing—even though the thing is totally made up and silly.
It doesn’t really matter, but one might be tempted to ask: What does Jeff Goldblum think about all this? Oh, he absolutely loves it.