Look around. Look at the singer and his band. Look at the other hulking things with their bad tattoos leaning against the walls and know that this is not what you believed it would be. Feel your mistake like a steel-toe to the chest.
— Amanda Boyden, Pretty Little Dirty
The 1980s are omnipresent. They are invoked in those legwarmers and plastic hot pink hoop earrings sold in Urban Outfitters, heard in new wave/post-punk revivalists The Killers and Interpol, echoed in the conservative leanings of the current U.S. administration. So it makes sense that contemporary literature is jumping on the bandwagon; after all, literary Brat Packer and chronicler of ’80s youth Bret Easton Ellis –whom critics are comparing Amanda Boyden to — has made a comeback recently with his first novel in six years. Boyden’s debut novel Pretty Little Dirty is the latest work to capitalize on the popularity of the decade. The author namedrops Dead Kennedys, Sonic Youth, and Styx. Her female protagonists have sex like there’s no tomorrow, a sign of a time when birth control was prevalent but when knowledge of AIDS was scant or nonexistent. But while Ellis’s novels are sharp, unflinching portrayals of the decadence, materialism and nihilism of the decade, Boyden merely offers a candy-coated cautionary tale that, when you take away its soundtrack, could take place during any decade.
This is not a testament to the timelessness of Boyden’s tale, but a reflection of its generic qualities. If you have read Go Ask Alice or have seen Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, you have read Pretty Little Dirty.
The book chronicles the downward style of narrator, Lisa Smith, and best friend — and bad influence — Celeste Diamond. The dynamic and future of their relationship is set up in their first encounter at an exam for placement into an elite private school. During the test, Celeste conspicuously asks Lisa for the answer to a question. Narrates Lisa:
I looked up then and that’s when I saw her … the sixth-grade goddess-to-be just sitting on the other side of the table staring … “Twelve is D. All of the above.” From that moment on I never denied Celeste an academic answer.
Celeste, from here, is portrayed as a temptress — she is the Eve to Lisa’s Adam, To be fair, however, Lisa needs little convincing to follow Celeste’s dangerous whims and suggestions. While Lisa is easily led, Boyden makes sure that Celeste doesn’t come across as a malevolent femme fatale. Celeste doesn’t convince Lisa to cheat because she wants to turn Lisa into a bad girl, but because she doesn’t understand that what she is asking her to do is wrong. This might put a twist on the usual bad-influence character found in teen dramas, but a lack of development regarding Celeste’s motivation renders the character particularly uninteresting. Her acts aren’t insightful or groundbreaking so much as contrived and annoying.
Contrived, too, is Boyden’s shock-value reliance on visceral, squirm-inducing depictions of sex and drug use. Celeste, for instance, loses her virginity to a man in his 40s; Lisa details the cuts she administers to herself at punk shows; Lisa’s fuck buddy keeps an assortment of vegetables in his coat for their sex games. These events might have succeeded in shocking had they not been so firmly rooted in a sort of teenage fantasyland. One of the many offending elements here is the fact that every male the two girls encounter ranges physically from very-pleasant looking to drop-dead gorgeous. Consider: The boys whom the girls engage in a spin-the-bottle game in sixth grade summer camp? Hot. The one male in the girls’ ballet classes whom Lisa, of course, later hooks up with? Exotic looking. The two older art students (including Vegetable Guy) Lisa regularly has sex with in high school, said students’ art instructor, all of Celeste’s male housemates at Berkeley, the random punk rockers picked up at clubs? All worthy of modeling contracts.
Boyden resists realism at every turn. These men — with the exception of the girls’ two hot younger prom dates, who ditch a drunk, passed out and bloodied Celeste on a stranger’s lawn — appear to have the noblest of intentions. Even the deadbeats who travel California in search of punk shows and pretty much gang bang the two girls every night in their motel room all are portrayed as good guys — one even risks his life trying to protect Celeste from an violent punk. This is frustrating and lazy, and the book lacks verisimilitude because of it. Keep in mind, too, that even with its dramatic (and ridiculous) climax that serves the cautionary purpose of telling the story, the girls’ misadventures until that point render few serious consequences: no STDs, no trips to the emergency room, not even a bad drug trip. These are lucky girls.
Boyden’s story is simply too thin to be taken seriously. The author does her best to boost this thinness with some powerful imagery, particularly in the stream-of-conscious narration at various punk shows that intermittently break up the novel’s narrative flow. But her writing often slips into the overwrought and pretentious (“perpetuating the contagion of preteen paroxysm”) or the clichéd (“another drop slipped from the phallic tip of [Celeste’s] popsicle, glancing off her bare leg”). The awkwardness of the phrasing in the first case confuses and distances the reader, while the obviousness of the second insults the reader’s intelligence.
With all the sensationalist memoirs dominating the literary market, no amount of sex, drugs, and violence alone can shock a reader. Pretty Little Dirty needs something deeper to fall back on. A smattering of hip underground ’80s simply doesn’t cut it.