David Breskin’s Supermodel is a tightly wound double helix that manages to expose the general malaise of the Internet age while unabashedly celebrating it. Loosely based on supermodel Petra Nemcova’s close-up with the South Asian tsunami disaster in late 2004, Breskin’s book-length poem pairs that narrative — isolated woman fighting for life in the face of natural disaster — with an assortment of Internet discursions, pitting the basic conflict of woman v. nature against something else altogether: technology, or, the anti-nature. This juxtaposition serves as a proper warning: Even as images and screens command our day-to-day life, working to push reality several removes away, physical forces govern us.
One of these physical forces is beauty, of course, and a narrative about a supermodel cannot escape some discussion of physical beauty and desire. While Breskin is ginger in his treatment of his protagonist, preferring a full-bodied psychological portrait to waxings on the nature of her exterior, he does not shy from addressing the complexities of physical attraction. Many of these complexities are illuminated in the juxtaposition of the supermodel’s reflections on her past with Internet-culled content from AskMen.com or the Female Labia Enhancement Centre — but to understand how these juxtapositions work, one must first understand how Supermodel is constructed.
Breskin has chosen a two-pronged form, crafting two separate narratives that move forward in tandem. The first narrative follows the unnamed supermodel, who is stranded in a palm tree in the Indian Ocean. As she waits for someone, ideally her missing fiancé, to find and rescue her, we follow her strain of thought, which reflects on her personal history via prose poem couplets. Rushing forth in one long unbroken sentence, the supermodel’s story is part stream-of-consciousness, part selective biography, written in third person.
This first narrative is jettisoned forward by a parallel undercurrent of found Internet text that works as a textual representation of the tidal wave’s aftermath, ebbing and flowing beneath our protagonist. While the two threads remain physically discrete (two lines of one followed by two lines of the other), they boomerang around one another conceptually, alternately meeting and diverging.
In other words, there are two poetic narratives to follow: the primary story, of a supermodel stranded in the ocean; and its undercurrent, which serves as the first narrative’s auto-contextualization. The effect is such that the reader can read one or the other narrative separately all the way through, switch back and forth throughout, or read the two concurrently.
The two texts are generally linked thematically, and the link may be obvious or less so. For instance, as the primary narrative reflects on the protagonist’s mother’s pregnancy and subsequent labor, the supplementary text offers vaginal beauty tips and the most common reasons for labioplasty. Elsewhere, when the primary narrative returns to to the palm tree, where the supermodel is trapped naked and semi-conscious, the undercurrent switches to a discussion board argument over the “pseudo-sexuality” of string bikinis, providing an absurdly trivial counterpoint to the situation at hand.
Something about the vagaries of the Internet makes most narratives created from it seem contrived; Supermodel‘s netstream avoids that pitfall by acting as only a supplement to a story interesting enough to carry the book on its own. What does the netstream add, then? While it conveniently locks the narrative into a time period, it more importantly offers a frighteningly realistic portrayal of culture at large, in all its absurdity — a balanced opposition to the specificity of the primary narrative.
One unavoidable problem with parsing together a flood of Internetspeak to illuminate the absurdities of contemporary web-driven life is that everyone is already all-too-aware of those absurdities. Were Breskin’s novel-poem written three or four years ago, it would be astonishingly bold and prescient. As it is, on the brink of 2007, the Internet and its frequently terrifying aspects are all too old news. It’s like those poems made out of e-spam: Spam can be strangely poetic. Yawn. Breskin’s webverse induces yawning only in parts, fortunately; more often it offers startling resonances with the upper narrative with which it is paired, and that upper narrative is all too compelling on its own, largely due to its many-layered protagonist.
Breskin has created an uncommonly full psychological portrait of a purportedly super-beautiful woman. He gives his supermodel superheroine the utmost dignity and grace. As she clings to her palm tree, the narrative retreats into her past, taking the reader through her childhood, her high school years, her unexpected foray into modeling, and the development of her relationship with her fiancé. Her physical appearance is virtually a non-issue. It’s there, certainly, impossible to ignore, but that’s all it is.
If anything, Breskin’s psychological rendering is more unrealistic than his physical creation. It’s difficult not to reject her character flawlessness. Perhaps Breskin went too far into the task of developing a full psychological portrait of a supermodel that he ended up giving her superwoman status as well. As it is, his protagonist is nothing short of the Ideal Woman circa 2006, when a beautiful woman can no longer rely on her beauty but also must be exceedingly clever, empowered, athletic, and with a dark and tragic past. (She also should eat a lot to avoid cries of eating disorder.) Our nameless protagonist is not only a supermodel, but also a former volleyball star who grew up fatherless and survived childhood sexual abuse as well as the Columbine tragedy. She is clever, self-possessed, just aloof enough, and — oh yeah — a virgin. Come on. Don’t women have enough to live up to?
Though his character does in the end come off as genuine, if not realistic, the symbolism Breskin has brewed into his Galatea falls prey to overdetermination. As a symbol of a world in transition, the image of the supermodel isolated in a palm tree in the midst of an environmental disaster is compelling, and the Internet verse supplements the message considerably, if inconsistently. But must she also have experienced Columbine? Tsunami, the world of modeling, Columbine: Two of the three is more than enough material.
In one especially revelatory passage, Breskin weaves in found Internet text that compares the Asian tsunami to the disastrous earthquake in Bam, Iran, the previous year. Amidst the frivolity of some of the other Internet texts, this passage sticks. Natural disaster has never been uncommon, and yet today registers as increasingly impossible — who didn’t want to deny the impending disaster of Hurricane Katrina? — and increasingly forgettable — had you, just maybe, forgotten Bam? When real-life supermodel Nemcova brought her story to worldwide media, grieving the death of her photographer boyfriend in the wake of the tsunami, we may have stopped to listen, to sympathize, to give to relief funds, for a moment. But her story soon became, along with countless other stories from the disaster, just one more ripple in the infostream. Breskin attempts to counter that force — the overwhelming tidal wave of information — with this ambitious poem. He may have just succeeded.