Alex Shakar's excellent debut novel "The Savage Girl" had the great misfortune of being published right before September 11, 2001. It is definitely worth another look, especially since his new novel "Luminarium" has just been published.
The Denver Post
November 11, 2001
By Dylan Foley
The trendspotters of Middle City observe you. They go to your parties, they chat you up and note what you're wearing, what you are buying and what you dream about. Trendspotters roam free in "The Savage Girl," Alex Shakar's debut novel, a fast-paced, dark satire of consumer excess, models and insatiable marketing.
At the center of the novel is Ursula, a failed artist who comes to the fictional Middle City to find out what happened to her sister, Ivy, a model who had a very public breakdown and suicide attempt. Ursula is hired by the ominous Chas, Ivy's ex-boyfriend, who heads the trendspotting firm of Tomorrow Ltd. Ursula skates around the pre-apocalyptic city looking for future trends with the fragile Javier, a consultant who believes consumer products can free people. Speaking in maxims, Javier says, "Beauty is the PR campaign of the human soul."
To write "The Savage Girl," Shakar had to confront his ambivalence toward consumer culture. "It was my struggle in writing the novel," said Shakar during an interview in New York City. "Half the time, you see the ugliness of consumerism, then you look at the same thing a different way, and see that consumerism is liberating and dynamic. Is it something that imprisons us and stifles our imagination, or is it something that gives us more creativity?
"About 10 years ago, I learned what trendspotters were," said Shakar of the marketing consultants who predict consumer trends. "They are on the periphery of the consumer culture, and they observe. They are cultural anthropologists in one way and crass business consultants in another."
While trendspotting, Ursula becomes infatuated with a savage girl who lives in a park, eats pigeons and fashions her own clothes out of small animals she kills. Ursula makes the neoprimitive girl the focus of an ad campaign that catches on like a devastating wildfire.
Shakar launches into wonderful, sustained parody of consumer culture. Middle City is reminiscent of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and the movie "Blade Runner," but is strangely not far removed from the present. "The Savage Girl" is a cynical and provocative work, with grains of hope crushed at the bottom. The book gains a breathtaking momentum while maintaining its intellectual punch.
Shakar forces the reader to face everyday images from new angles. In Middle City, the statue of the Virgin Mary on top of a hospital gives an apologetic shrug: "Sorry, she appears to say. No insurance, no service."
"The book started as a slacker novel set in Austin, Texas, where I was living at the time," said Shakar, a 33-year-old English Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois in Chicago. The novel changed drastically after a chance observation in a New York City park. "I saw this girl sitting on the concrete, making some chainmail. She looked completely separate from those around her. I wondered how anybody could be so earnest. Then I realized how cynical that question was."
It wasn't until Shakar created a female character that the novel took a big leap forward "Ursula wasn't even a character in the first draft," he said. "Having a female character was a real way of having the issues of consumerism affect her more directly. Women's bodies are still the magic thing that are used to buy and sell products."
In the character of Ursula's boss, Shakar has developed a modern Mephistopheles on steroids: "He has a washboard stomach, even on his forehead," writes Shakar of Chas. "Chas offers Ursula the world on a platter, in exchange for her soul," he explained. "The story is how she is seduced and finds herself, as well."
Shakar did extensive research on trendspotting, including interviewing professionals. "After I read everything I could find, I had to create my own ideas on the subject and had to create a language to describe these ideas," he said. One of Shakar's new vocabulary terms is "post-irony." "If you put a gun to my head, I might say post-irony is the state where irony and earnestness are indistinguishable," said Shakar.
By shifting the novel to the fictional Middle City, Shakar had more license to play with the story. "I wanted the freedom to invent trends and to not get dated myself," he said.
"Having created a fantastical setting, I am better able to lure readers into a fairytale, like the story is something that doesn't affect them at all. When you are sucked in, only then do you realize that it is very recognizable."
Throughout "The Savage Girl," mental illness plays an important role. The character Javier is a manic depressive, with his highs and lows on consumer culture. Ivy's schizophrenia becomes part of the focus of her "savage girl" ad campaign, and Internet viewers become mesmerized by every grand, mad statement out of her mouth, every self-inflicted scar on her body. "Ivy's schizophrenia allows her to be opposites at once," said Shakar. "She is both glamorous and squalid, and has delusions of grandeur and persecutions." In the novel, trendspotters talk about schizophrenia as being the next big thing.
After being immersed in pop culture for the six years it took to write "The Savage Girl," Shakar admitted that his feelings are mixed on the modern consumer society.
"Like the Chinese curse, we do live in interesting times. Pop culture fascinates me, but it also horrifies me."
Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY.
(THE SAVAGE GIRL By Alex Shakar, HarperCollins, 275 pages, $26)