When my pile of New Yorker back issues gets too high, first I find all the cartoons, then the “Shouts and Murmurs” features. If I don’t get to all those old articles, at least I have a good laugh. Paul Rudnick is a frequent contributor to “Shouts and Murmurs,” and before reading Rudnick’s novel – Gorgeous – I laughed at his reaction to Pope Benedict’s abdication in the February issue (“Fingers Crossed”) and his first person narrative as Gwyneth Paltrow -“named both the Most Hated Celebrity… and the World’s Most Beautiful Woman….” in the May issue. So I knew he was brash, irreverent – downright sarcastic – and so funny.
Rudnick’s Gorgeous has a not so subtle message about the power and danger of superficiality. After her obese mother’s untimely death, 18-year-old Becky leaves the Missouri trailer park for New York City. Thanks to her mother’s bequest, punctuated with timely postmortem cell phone rings, Becky gets a makeover and new clothes from her mother’s former manager, Tom Kelly, a fashion guru resembling Calvin Klein with a diabolical Dorian Gray look. The fairy tale plot is predictable at first, but Rudnick spins a new twist on the Cinderella story. Tom promises Becky beauty, fame, glamour, and a new life if she agrees to the wearing of his three dresses (strategically stamped with his logo), with the caveat that she must fall in love and marry within the year or the transformation, and the wardrobe, will disappear.
The first dress – red – transforms Becky into supermodel Rebecca. She stars in the newest blockbuster movie; she meets the Prince (William before marrying Kate); she gets ready for her next dress – in bridal white. Rudnick inserts comments on the Prince’s dead mother (Diana) – “only her death made her truly acceptable,” the Queen’s “seventy-two” corgis, and history lessons on the British empire that had me laughing:
“Years ago, centuries ago, England owned everything. America, India, Canada, Australia, South Africa, half the planet. But there were wars and uprisings and tiffs and gradually, it all went away. And now the English have nothing. They’ve even lost their shoulders, their chins, and the ability to carry a tune…all they have left are non-folding umbrellas, decent skin, and their pride…”
Although the book is categorized as young adult fiction, the profanity and level of sophistication of the characters is for adults – but not all – you need to appreciate Rudnick’s brand of humor to enjoy his jabbing at today’s shallow culture, flaunted mercilessly in unending reality shows.
“…nobody likes a whiner, especially a whiner whose most recent activities are preempting every top-rated sitcom, every major sporting event, and the president’s State of the Union address…”
Maybe, to appreciate the satire, you need to feel the same way. I laughed through Rudnick’s clever gems, when I wasn’t quietly smirking as a fellow conspirator. The plot mixes a modern version of Grimm’s fairytale with a Faustian bargain, and Becky’s identity crisis resolves in a happy fairy tale ending with a moral.
Just think of this as a lengthy “Shouts and Murmurs” and enjoy.