|Interview by Ron Hogan|
Back in 1991, Alex Shakar read an article on trendspotters in Spy. He thought there might be an idea for a novel in there, but he filed it away for several years. A few years later, after publishing the short story collection City in Love, Shakar remembered that article. "I thought that trendspotters would be the perfect people," he recalls, "through which to look at whether our increasing tendency to express ourselves through our purchases gives us power or leeches our power away." The braintrust at Tomorrow Ltd., the trendspotting firm in The Savage Girl (an October Daily Pick and a Jan/Feb 2002 Book Sense 76 pick), is a perfect example of the breed: part business people, part cultural gurus, and loaded with elaborate theories about what trends in fashion say about our culture and society -- including a great term that Shakar invented, "paradessence," which refers to a consumer item's paradoxical essence. Ice cream's paradessence, for example, is that it invokes both innocence and indulgence.
Beatrice.com: How did you hit upon these great theories about consumer goods and cultural identity?
Alex Shaker: I did a lot of research, read everything I could get my hands on in terms of market research and behavioral psychology, all the literature I could find. I'm not a trendspotter, but I did educate myself about their terminology. I followed the changes in the advertising industry. It made me a lot more aware of how deeply we're committed as a society to the project of expressing our identities and ideals through the products we consume.
I found some truly weird and interesting stuff, but not the one type of theory I was looking for. I ended up walking around supermarkets myself, watching commercials, paying attention to what had an effect on me, and then trying to figure out why it did. That's how I came up with the idea of paradessence.
It's been really interesting to have people who read the book come up to me with examples they've seen themselves and tell me, "Hey, this is exactly like your book!" If I've helped people understand the world in some new way, that's really cool. Of course, the scary side of that was meeting with the marketing people at HarperCollins and having them hold up the book and tell me, "This should be a textbook for marketing classes!"
Have you heard anything from the fine folks at General Foods and Nestlé?
You know, I heard about that Fay Weldon book, the one she'd written for Bulgari, and I think I'm pretty safe from that sort of thing. It's easy for me to get on my high horse, I suppose, and say I'd never write a book for, say, the Gap. But I really don't think they'd come up to me and ask.
I was thinking more along the lines of official disapproval of concepts in your book like, say, Nestlé Shit.
I was worried about that, and so was HarperCollins. My editor wasn't sure if I could use it, and asked very tentatively if I was willing to change the names of the companies. But I really think that would have been chickening out. I put a disclaimer in the front of the book, and I think that should be sufficient.
In the past, when corporations have gone after artists, it's usually backfired. All it gets them is negative publicity. But it's still a real danger, and the writer who does it is taking a real risk. McDonald's, for example, has vigorously tried to sue any critique of it out of existence. People who want to talk about the quality of the meat, or where it comes from, or the effects on the environment...they become deeply enmeshed in lawsuits that consume their entire lives.
I had to get the cover of the book approved, because it has those rows of cookies and crackers on the shelves. Finally, the lawyers for HarperCollins said it was okay, because I didn't actually say anything about cookies or crackers in the book. If I'd wanted to put ice cream on the cover, it might have been a problem.
You clearly had a lot of fun building Middle City from the foundations up, naming its landmarks, laying out its neighborhoods...
I started writing the novel in Austin, where I was doing a postgraduate fellowship, so the first draft was actually set in Austin, and it was sort of a slacker novel. The city gradually evolved beyond that, and the characters evolved with it. Ursula wasn't even a character in most of the early drafts, and her sister, Ivy, started out dead, until I realized she had to be a living, breathing character. Once I brought her to life, and started having fun with her personality, her delusions, she became a major part of the novel.
Everybody has their own idea of what city I'm "really" talking about. Is it New York, is it Chicago, Honolulu, Seattle? (smiles) I took pieces from a lot of different cities, and I had fun mapping it out, actually mapping it out on paper and setting down its geography.
I think it serves a good purpose, which is that it helps people approach the book like a fantasy at first, even if it's just in a very subtle way. The reader doesn't feel implicated immediately, because it's not their city, so he or she can read it without any defensiveness. But as it becomes more and more like our world, the eerie surreal parts take on a new layer of resonance because deep down, there's some degree of recognition.
Those moments are extreme and bizarre, but somehow also plausible...
It was difficult for me to approach writing a satire of the advertising industry, because it's an industry that pretends to satirize itself so often. It's a culture that appropriates critique easily. Irony used to be a tool artists could use to critique the system, but advertising has coopted that. I remember when I came up with the idea for diet water, and I thought to myself that it was completely absurd, too over the top. But then I thought some more, and it was perfect for the theme of the book, the idea that trends begin as reactions against consumerism which are then harnessed, incorporated into the machine as it were.
And then they actually do come out with caffeinated water...
...and vitamin water and fruit water, and now there's something called "oxygen water," which gives you more oxygen in case you're not getting enough from the air, I guess. I tried it, it makes you feel pretty good. It makes you feel better and cleaner somehow, even though it's purely psychological.
Critical reaction to the book often seems to suggest that the cultural landscape you've written about no longer exists after September 11th.
The culture has changed a lot since the attacks, undoubtedly. I was here in New York when it happened; my dad and I watched the towers burn from our roof. And I went out, wandered around to see if I could help, if I could do anything. But after a couple hours...I don't have welding skills, I don't have medical skills.... So I go home to watch TV, and the mayor comes on and says, "You know what everybody can do? Go out and go shopping." A few days later, we get the same message from the president.
One of the central themes of my book is our growing confusion of the two ideas of citizenship and consumerism. In a way, the politicians are right: consumption is power. The more our society consumes, the more our economy grows. But I think we're all also starting to realize that consumption is powerlessness. The more our nation consumes, the more we become dependent on dictators for the sake of oil, destroying ecosystems for the sake of food...That's what my book is about. It's about how consumerism effects us at an emotional or psychological or even spiritual level.
Even before the attacks, we were told that buying things was how we should help stop the economy from slumping -- but now it's patriotic to be a consumer, and GM comes out with the "keep America rolling" commercial... Well, I think it's time to start taking our other duties as citizens in a democratic society as seriously. This is a good time for us to take a hard look at the course we're on, the practices of our daily lives.
Alex Shakar grew up in Brooklyn, attended Stuyvesant High School and graduated from Yale in 1990. He was a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 1996, Alex won the National Fiction Competition and the Independent Presses Editors' "Pick of the Year" for his first collection of short stories, City in Love. He currently lives in Chicago.
Ron Hogan is the editor and publisher of Beatrice.com, a collection of interviews with authors of contemporary literary fiction and nonfiction.