Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Cover Girls

You can judge a book by its cover. One with a black and white photo of its author, especially one with has the ruffled edges of a 1950's snapshot, is going to be a heartwarming yet bittersweet tale of how great the author's youth was in Lower Armhole, South Dakota, or some such place. A cover that is a bold or metallic color and has the author's name in Second Coming type is an author who has written a baker's dozen previous novels practically indistinguishable from this one, all of which had sales in the six figures and not one of which was reviewed in The New York Review of Books.

And the Gossip Girl novels--there are now seven of them, all by Cecily von Ziegesar--are exactly what you'd expect from their cover art: catty novels about the sort of people who will be the first to go before the firing squad when the dictatorship of the proletariat comes to power, people who deserve a Digby Baltzell or Thorstein Veblen to chronicle their extravagance. Von Ziegesar chronicles the type who never leave their Upper East Side pads, with monthly rents of six figures, unless clad tip to toe in the sort of garments pictured in the hundred pages of advertisements before Graydon Carter's editor's letter.

These characters are young, they're in love, but so far they have not followed Bonnie and Clyde's lead by killing anyone--but it's only a matter of time. Prep school types, like those seen in the film Cruel Intentions, they have those oh so tough decisions to make. Princeton or Yale? Aspen or Sun Valley? Prada or Gucci? Sephora or Bloomingdale's? Jimmy Choos or Manolos? You know, the questions that are the bane of human existance, the sort of issues the existentialists are eaten up by.

Our heroine is Blair Waldorf, the first fictional Blair I've encounted since the days of the similarly situated character played by Lisa Whelchel. Her on-again-off-again boyfriend is the stoner Nate Archibald, who she's been trying to bed but because of various complications her best laid plans . . . well, only the plans are getting laid. Nate, however, has hooked up with Serena van der Woodsen, Blair's ex-best friend whose name puts me in mind of the late Mauritian Prime Minister Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. Serena, a glamazon who naturally struts into a big modeling career and winds up on the runways in Bryant Park during Fashion Week, even gets a perfume named for her: Serena's Tears. (As Dave Barry likes to put it, sounds like a good name for a rock band.)

Blair and Serena go to school with Jenny Humphrey, a ninth grader with an endowment bigger than Harvard's, who is horribly insecure about her figure, a fact we are reminded of every time she appears, the type of girl who writes those anxious letters to Seventeen about "My Most Embarrassing Moment". Her brother Dan is a poet whose work is the kind Robert Frost had in mind when he said "writing blank verse is like playing tennis with the net down." But the tiny mummies of The New Yorker publish one of his poems, one with the soigne title "Sluts". How did this happen? Well, in this alternative universe his girlfriend Vanessa (I love that name) picks a name off the masthead and sends it in and it is plucked from the slush pile. Or maybe slush piles don't exist in this Manhattan. After all, there The New Yorker has a masthead. (Or is that an "oops!" by the author.)

Vanessa is the most interesting character here and not merely for the Swiftian name. With her shaved head and filmmaking dreams, she's different and realizes the vacuity of the other characters. (Unlike fellow fictional teenage filmmaker Dawson Leery, she's interested in artsy films that'll only play at the Angelika and be reviewed by Stanley Kauffman rather than Speilbergian popular entertainments.

I could go on with the characters, but they're all pretty much the same facing the same poor little rich kid problems. That Mad TV sendup of The WB's lineup, "Pretty White Kids With Problems," sums it up. Is any of this believable? Not for a moment. But I read five of these novels in a weekend. So what if they're chewing gum for the mind--I'm waiting for the next one coming this October. "You know you love me," writes Gossip Girl and she's right, even if some of us are more inclined to break into a Yip Harburg lyric, you know

Down with love,
Let's liquidate all its friends,
The moons, the Junes,
The roses and rainbows' ends,
Songs that talk about night and day,
Down with love
Yes take it away,

Note to self: remember to abide by own rules about book covers in making selections.


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