LitMonkey – May 2014
LitMonkey is a monthly series where I discuss the books I’ve read over the past month in a highly personal way. It is in no way an exact clone of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” This is the eighteenth installment. Enjoy!
Books I Read:
- “Manic: A Memoir”, Terri Cheney
- “American Psycho”, Bret Easton Ellis
- “Ghost World” (graphic novel), Daniel Clowes
- “Gang of Four’s Entertainment!” (33-1/3 series), Kevin J.H. Dettmar
- “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk ”, Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain
- “Sid Vicious: No One is Innocent”, Alan Parker
- “Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ Blank Generation ” (33-1/3 series), Pete Astor
Books I Purchased:
Books I Borrowed from the Library:
- “Manic” (ebook)
- “Please Kill Me”
- “Ghost World”
There are people who suffer from manic depression, and then there are people whose entire lives are defined by it. Terri Cheney is from the latter category, and her memoir, Manic, is a series of stories illustrating what one’s life would be like if it everything they did was guided by their manic depression. No amount of therapy, no amount of medication (and she takes an inordinate amount), could make Cheney’s life even close to normal. Multiple suicide attempts, lost jobs, lost boyfriends – and often, lost time – are all a result solely of her mood swings. Not to diminish anyone’s mental condition, but I highly doubt that there are many who, reading Manic, let alone possibly any reading this column, could say that their bipolar experience is on par with Cheney’s. In that respect, it’s not a very useful book to the community at large. Depicting this mental illness as so debilitating undercuts some of the point that I think Cheney is trying to make, which is to remove the stigma around manic depression. If I understood the condition as always manifesting in all people the way Cheney’s does, I’d be apprehensive identifying with it as well (assuming I were bipolar). If manic depression is a roller coaster ride, Cheney’s is the Cyclone right on the brink of a thunderstorm. It’s not a bad book if you enjoy the ride – and she makes some very spot-on points about manic depression throughout her story – but it’s important not to confuse Cheney’s adventure as representative of all roller coasters.
I’ve never read a novel by Bret Easton Ellis before, even though I’ve long been a fan of the movie American Psycho which is based on his book of the same name. It’s not that I was adverse to the idea of reading Ellis, just that I never quite got around to it. Then his name came up several times when I was reading Marc Spitz’s memoir Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the ’90s , as Spitz – like Ellis – attended Bennington College in Vermont ultimately to become a writer. Reminded of my having missed out on this author I picked up copies of American Psycho and Less Than Zero, starting with the former because of my affinity for the movie. Patrick Bateman is such a uniquely vile and yet compelling character that I just knew the written version of him would be something extraordinary. Now that I’m done, I can’t understate how bizarre and sick this book is. Bateman is horrible, but the book isn’t frightening in the traditional sense of the word. It’s gripping and gruesome and loathsome in every way that the movie is, squared. If you, like me, knew nothing about Ellis before other than the American Psycho, I’d say imagine what a book written by Quentin Tarantino without an editor or someone to tell him that he’d gone too far or too strange would be like. That’s American Psycho. And it’s bloody brilliant.
What if I had never listened to Nirvana’s Nevermind before this year – would I still think it was one of the greatest albums ever? Or if I had never seen the 1992 movie Singles in its time? I suppose it’s impossible to answer that – context is everything; the time, place, era and mental state in which you consume a piece of art or media has as much to do with how you appreciate it as the work itself. That said, I recently had a chance to experience what it is like to consume a piece of grunge-era culture 20 years after its release and perhaps understand how a modern-day teenager might feel about my formative childhood music, books and movies.
Ghost World is the first graphic novel that I’ve ever read, and so you won’t get from me an account of how it stands up in the world of graphic novels (though the general consensus seems to be that it is one of the all-time best). However, I do know what it was like to be a disenchanted teenager in the mid-‘90s, so in that respect I am highly qualified to talk about this book. I know for certain that had I read Ghost World when it came out in 1993 I would have thought it was the greatest thing that had ever been written/drawn. Author Daniel Clowes captures the feelings and attitudes of the ‘90s teen (girl) expertly. But like many cultural relics from the grunge era, Ghost World feels a little bit dated 20 years later. I don’t think it’s simply a matter of me no longer being a teenager, though of course that may be part of it; after all, I still listen to punk music even though I don’t want to overthrow the government. Ghost World suffers from the same fate that the movie Reality Bites does – while the alienation of the adolescents portrayed in the work feels as true today as it did then, the resulting angst – that once felt justified – now seems mostly comical. To be fair, while Clowes takes the girls in Ghost World very seriously,he still recognizes and illustrates that their attitudes are slightly ridiculous. (You could say the same of course about the Ethan Hawke character in Reality Bites.) I think that to a teenager today though the ridiculousness would outweigh the resonance. That’s why Ghost World is an excellent piece about teenagers in the ‘90s – and probably must reading for every teen that isn’t the prom king or queen – but isn’t quite The Catcher in the Rye of graphic novels. It’s Clerks for teenage girls.
I’m going to cut May’s LitMonkey short right there, or rather I’m going to pause it and later this month publish LitMonkey – May 2014, Part 2: Punk Edition, where I’ll talk about Please Kill Me, Sid Vicious and Blank Generation. So if you don’t care at all about punk music, lucky you – and if you read this far waiting for some thoughts on Nancy Spungen, you have my temporary apologies. And a promise that the Punk Edition will be better for it.