By Carole Morin
Overlook Press, $23.95
A Literary Companion
Edited by Susanna Johnson
Overlook Press, $24.95
Reviewed by DELILAH JONES SHAPIRO
If the heroine of novelist Carole Morin's Dead Glamorous were to come across Parties: A Literary Companion in the bookstore, she would no doubt declare the book to be "dead dull," but she also would know all the references, and the movie version of the story to boot. The heroine of Morin's latest work (she also wrote a novel called Lampshades and writes Half Life, an autobiographical column for the Spectator of London) is, like Morin, a Scottish-born, London-dwelling woman whose life is defined by and devoted to style _ the kind of style that movies are made of.
In her "autobiography of seduction and self-destruction," Morin's alter ego (who, like the alter ego in her column, lives with a man called Dangerous Donald) experiences her life as famous scenes from films and books. If she feels she has to explain herself to someone, her head is suddenly filled with a list of explanation scenes from movies featuring Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine and Jimmy Stewart. If she feels stranded, the image is Sherlock Holmes lost on the moors. If she feels gorgeous, she's Elizabeth Taylor.
The story of young Miss Money, the 20-something heroine of Morin's tale, begins on the sixth anniversary of the suicide of her brother John, who jumped from a rooftop, and ends on the seventh. In between the narrator recalls her life, from the death many years before of her Grandfather Money (who left his fortune to her mother, thus launching all of their lives onto a new plane), to her alienation from her father (who is virtually ignored by the entire family), and later from her mother (who runs off at one point to live in Georgia O'Keefe country and have torrid love affairs).
There's a glib, slick surface of cleverness to Miss Money's account of her life, but underneath it all is the very serious truth that this deadpan approach is the only way she knows how to cope. Immersed as she is in the bitter sadness of disappointed lives, in a surreal world of film and television images, private tragedies and public absurdities, Miss Money survives by clinging to and emulating the highest possible style she can muster. The result is a quirky, entertaining, dead hilarious character who could only have sprouted from the mind of a thoroughly stylish writer.
Indeed, Morin is a modern Dorothy Parker put through a Quentin Tarantino meat-grinder with a dash of Grace Kelly on top.
Now, as I said, if Miss Money were to wander into a party, I'd be hard-pressed to know exactly which of the literary party scenes excerpted in Parties: A Literary Companion she would find most inviting. And a lot would depend on where she was in the story of her life. But I have no doubt she would relate to this sort of chive approach to literature _ it's the same one she adopts toward living. By "chive," I mean bits of story suspended in a sour-cream base. Johnson's collection _ while certainly edifying when it comes to the long list of authors whose work was devoted, even if briefly, to the subject of parties _ is a bit like eating chives and sour cream without the potato. Maybe you need a party to attend _ or a life as hauntingly messed up as that of the heroine of Dead Glamorous for this to work.
That said, the book makes great bathroom reading, and I especially loved the introduction by John Wells, who notes that parties are all about manners, which is another word for style: "Manners, of course, vary: Children in the Pacific are taught to eat an eel or a pigeon starting with the head; in England they are taught the right way to eat asparagus." I get the feeling that John Wells and Carole Morin are secretly the same person. It's that kind of attention to weird detail that defines both the introduction by Wells and the novel by Morin.
Not surprisingly, many of the excerpts Johnston has collected in Parties _ and the authors run the gamut from William Shakespeare to Martin Amis _ describe more often than not the fear, anxiety, dread, alienation and melancholy of parties. It leads me to conclude that the evolution of style is the story of survival in a modern world.
Delilah Jones Shapiro writes the Cyberia column for the Times. She also writes musicals and lives in New Jersey.