Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Now I Get It

One of the things I did this winter was join the crowds and start reading YA literature, though I also stopped reading YA literature, though then again, really I didn't, as this post is about this weekend's YA reading.

I'm not quite sure if I read Gossip Girl or Dairy Queen first, but basically around about the same time I was reading the first several Gossip Girls and both of Catherine Gilbert Murdock's D.J. Schwenk books. Murdock's books are just great. In fact, they are so great that you can't really say why they're great. It's character, plot, background, writing, values, just everything seamlessly coming together into greatness (including chapter construction: she writes some of the best chapters I can think of: situation, semi-resolution, leave you hanging so you have to go right on to the next chapter: really, they are just about flawless).

Then there's Gossip Girl. Oh dear, what to say... Well, it's important to remember that I have both a fairly insatiable desire for trash and a clear limit for how far I'll go, both in trashiness and, perhaps more importantly, in repetition. Gossip Girl is at once tedious and compelling, like an entire bag of M&Ms (unlike an entire box of good chocolates, or a small handful of M&Ms). The same things happen over and over (mainly designer label name drops and romantic machinations), but there's enough suspense (mainly of the will-they-ever-have-sex type) to keep you reading to find out what happens. Even though nothing ever does. Except I think eventually it might have, but I stopped reading after the first three books. (M has kept going. M has been reading Gossip Girl and Murdock along with me, as well as piles of Gossip Girl imitations, food writing, YA historical fiction, and whatever else she can get her hands on, so long as it's not fantasy. In other words: her mother's daughter, in this as in so many other ways.)

So I'd stopped reading Gossip Girl (skimmed Alice Hoffman's newest--ugh; fell in love once again with Jhumpa Lahiri's prose, but ultimately found the book a little tedious). Then we went to New York and Aunt M took the girls on their ritual buy-a-book excursion to Barnes & Noble, and M chose the Gossip Girls prequel, It Had to Be You (E chose some kind of fairy godmother's guide to how to be a princess, but my daughters are on the swim team and rock climb and know more about Elizabeth Cady Stanton than you do, so there!).

Anyway, life's been a little stressful lately, and escape was the weekend priority, so when M was done with her book (about twelve hours after she bought it, ten of which she spent sleeping), I picked it up. And I figured it out! Gossip Girls is 90210!

OK, I know you're thinking DUH. Elite L.A. high school morphs into elite NY high school: how obvious could that be? And I will admit that I did not figure out that obvious aspect until later. But where Gossip Girls is really 90210 is in the Nate-Blair-Serena triangle which is the Dylan-Brenda-Kelly triangle, and either you know exactly what I'm talking about and you totally get it (Sandra, are you out there?), or you don't know and don't care. Which is fine. Because the real point, of course, is about literary conventions and their transmutation.

Literary Convention 1: Trajectories of Desire

See, here's the thing: in 90210, Dylan is truly an object of desire, that is, he is the bad boy (see James Dean, Literary Convention 2). Brenda wants him, Kelly wants him, you want him.

But in Gossip Girls, Nate is a total cipher. There is no reason to want him, except that he's gorgeous and rich, and the narrative needs an object of desire. This is of course the nature of Gossip Girl: its fundamental signifier is the gorgeous, rich cipher. But Nate's cipherhood also frees up the Nate-Blair-Serena triangle to be explicitly Sedgwickian (or perhaps I should say Castleian). Clearly, with Nate as a cipher, the primary trajectory of desire becomes the one between Blair and Serena, and it's even instantiated in their kiss in the hot tub. But when implicit desire is surfaced that explicitly, it too becomes a cipher, bleached of any political or even erotic significance. Which again is the essence of Gossip Girl.

Literary Convention 3: The Blonde Heroine, The Dark Heroine
(If you're wondering what happened to Literary Convention 2, it's buried in the previous paragraph.)

Pace Scott and Eliot (that would be Sir Walter and George), the blonde heroine is the object of all desire, and the dark heroine is the smart, insightful one who suffers--and who gets the reader's empathy, but not the guy (that is, assuming you've got the properly constructed reader). So in Serena and Blair--as in Kelly and Brenda--you've got blonde and dark, but I'm thinking it's all messed up, only I'm not quite sure. Serena is the golden girl object of desire to a parody (see Dan and Jenny, not to mention Chuck and the entire book). And yet, Serena is also sympathetic, and, in the prequel at least, good. Blair is darkly conniving...hmm, conniving is not quite right. Narcissistic and manipulative. And gets the guy. Even though we know she shouldn't, because we know he belongs with Serena (see Dylan and Kelly!), and yet why does Serena even want him, he's so not good enough for her. But the point is, unlike in 90210, the blonde heroine loses, yet still has her all-powerful self, which means she never really loses, while the dark heroine wins, yet is still her unpleasant, if highly intelligent, self, and the qualities of blondeness and darkness are dispersed all over the place. Which means, again, that Gossip Girl, in a postmodernly ultimately referential yet referentially undermining way, leaches out any and all available narrative coherence, leaving only barely-tethered icons, and a lot of designer labels.

Last words 1: Everything leads back to 90210.

Last words 2: Imagine what could be accomplished if I harnessed all this brain power to the challenge of peace in the Middle East.

1 comment:

Jenny Davidson said...

This is a funny post!

(I loved Dairy Queen and sequel, they are amazing books...)