By Amanda Filipacchi
Reviewed by Jennifer Howard
Anyone hunting for proof that the man of the '90s is a spineless and contemptible creature need look no further than Jeremy Acidophilous, the washed-out, washed-up protagonist of Nude Men. Written by a 25-year-old writer born in Paris and now living in New York and dealing as it does with the angst of being young and pointless in the late 20th century, Nude Men almost insists on being compared to Bright Lights, Big City. The problem is that back in the '80s Jay McInerney could still deliver a protagonist with a story. Amanda Filipacchi's non-hero exists only to tell other people's.
Like McInerney's boy, Jeremy Acidophilous is painfully employed as a fact-checker for a Manhattan magazine. Unlike his predecessor in Bright Lights, Big City, however, he works for a decidedly lowbrow gossip sheet called Screen, where he spends most of his time filing and being abused by editorial assistants. Add to Jeremy's humdrum daily existence a social life that consists of a frigid girlfriend, an intrusive mother, and a cat named Minou, and you have a life of quiet desperation into which something strange and wonderful must surely fall.
That something is Lady Henrietta, a 30-ish bombshell of a painter who turns a buck painting naked bucks for Playgirl. Jeremy first ogles Henrietta while eating green Jello in a coffee shop: "She seems like the feminine type, the romantic type, the Sleeping Beauty type, blond hair, the type my girlfriend would perversely say looks jaded because she happens to have a charming face and laugh lines on either side of her mouth."
Henrietta approaches him mid-Jello and asks if he'll pose for her. Pose he does _ for one of Henrietta's "arty" paintings, not her Playgirl portfolio _ and in doing so gets sucked into a conspiracy of women who are as extravagantly colorful as he is drab.
In addition to the flamboyant Lady Henrietta, who has named herself after the irresistible, irredeemable Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, there are: Henrietta's 11-year-old daughter Sara, whose beautiful face and voluptuous body match her precocious attitude; and Henrietta's friend Laura, a magician who turns seeming ineptitude into the hottest performance show in Manhattan. The pallid Jeremy somehow manages to get romantically entangled with all three.
It's perplexing to find these dramatic women so willing to fling themselves into the arms of the lifeless Acidophilous, who's about as bland and sour as his last name suggests. Henrietta tells him that he's a good model because he's an O.I.M., an Optical Illusion Man: "You are almost ugly, but not quite. You are almost good-looking, but not quite. There is almost a tire of fat around your waist, but not quite. Your ribs almost stick out too much, but not quite. You almost look like the most stupidly blissful man in the world, but not quite. You almost look like you might commit suicide any second, but not quite."
This suggests that everyone sees in Jeremy the O.I.M. a host of possibilities. But Filipacchi takes such pains to establish him as a world-class loser that it's impossible to find him appealing just because a handful of intriguing women inexplicably do. In fact, it only makes them seem masochistic, especially Sara. Why would this Lolita set her sights on such a hollow man?
Given its basic narrative imbalance, Nude Men proves to be a lot more entertaining than you'd expect, however. Filipacchi writes with a wit and a wryness that takes some of the pressure off old milquetoast Jeremy and firms up his soggy story. Henrietta, Sara, and Laura all have good moments. Sara's seduction of Jeremy is a brilliant bit of comic-erotic writing, for instance, while Laura's unexpected popularity as a magician gives Filipacchi a chance to roast modern city dwellers and their desperate need to prove themselves fashionably in the know.
There's even an enticing world-view at work here, one in which it's perfectly natural that a man would have conversations with his cat. It's as if Filipacchi once looked at Manhattan through Garcia Marquez's glasses _ just a touch of magical realism has rubbed off on everything she sees, and the book has at times the rich strangeness of a fairy tale. That, and its irrepressible humor, almost compensates for the cipher at its heart. Jeremy Acidophilous makes the cocaine-snorting young things of Bright Lights, Big City look admirable by comparison. At least they were interesting enough to have vices.
Jennifer Howard is a writer living in Charlottesville, Va.