Thursday, December 31, 2009

CB's Book Reviews in Brief #4: Andy Greenwald's "Miss Misery"

Miss Misery: A Novel by Andy Greenwald (2006, Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 386 pp.)

Andy Greenwald is a pop music writer. If you didn't know this before you started Miss Misery, you sure as hell would by the end of the book. A senior contributing writer at Paste, Greenwald's references are hip but not über so. His prose is filled with name-drops of bands like Echo & the Bunnymen and Death Cab for Cutie (the leader singer of the latter, Ben Gibbard, giving the book a cover blurb); that is, bands you've heard of before but probably won't be found on commercial radio. In other words, the kinds of bands that large-scale music publications write about.

In a way, I think the music aspect is supposed to be secondary to the plot, but in another, more disappointing way, the music is the plot. The book revolves around three major characters - protagonist David, antagonist David (his quasi-alive but really imaginary doppelgänger), love interest Cath (aka Miss Misery) - and one minor character (teenage virtual friend Ashleigh), whose lives weave together around one central concept: that in this age of internet anonymity, nobody is quite who they say they are. None of these characters are developed in any terribly deep way (especially considering the almost 400 page length of the book), and instead are really just stereotypical stand-ins for certain types or, better yet, music business niche consumers (in this case, youthful female emo, Gen Y female hipster, and Gen X male hipster, with all the corresponding music preferences you'd expect them to have).

There are a pair of cinematic/literary influences clearly (very very very clearly) at work here: Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming and Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club. Those of you familiar with both are likely thinking something along the lines of "What?" Yeah, that's about right. Basically, you have a guy whose girlfriend goes abroad for professional self-betterment (although this time it is The Hague to work on a war crimes trial, as if someone can just opt in to an opportunity like that, rather than Prague as in
Kicking and Screaming), and he spends the entire stretch of the narrative flailing around until he finally decides to get on the plane and go see her. In the 15 or so chapters between girlfriend leaving and boyfriend following, you get the Fight Club part, where a self-repressed advantaged white dude creates an alternate reality that becomes all too self-destructively real (only in this case, rather than a frequent flier white collar drone having an alter ego who creates underground violence leagues, you have a freelance writer commissioned to write a quick and dirty book about social networks and online journaling that dodges his writer's block by creating a fictional alter ego who suddenly and inexplicably comes to life). Speaking of Fight Club, the film will be shown in Cleveland on the big screen this month (Saturday, January 16th, to be precise) at the Capitol Theatre (at W. 65th & Detroit Ave) as the inaugural selection for their new monthly (every 3rd Saturday) Late Shift midnight movie feature.

Unlike in the film version of Fight Club, where a viewer unaware of the plot going in can really be surprised by the fact that Brad Pitt's character is actually imaginary (you know, the "oh yeah, we never did see them in the same scene" reveal, etc.), we know upfront that the fictional David - who is an utterly ridiculous cokehead douchebag - is fictional, which makes every other aspect of the plot impossible to believe. For example, if the love interest (Cath/Miss Misery) knows that Good David and Bad David are actually the same Emotionally Disturbed David, why would she continue communicating in any way with either "David"? And beyond that, how on earth could anyone fall in love with Bad David period and, further, how could the kind of person who would be attracted to Bad David also be attracted to, quite literally, his polar opposite. If you love someone, isn't it somewhat impossible to love something that is absolutely different in every way? I mean, if your love interest is funny, charming, and zany - qualities which draw you to him or her - wouldn't it be kinda tough to simultaneously be smitten with someone who was humorless, oafish, and dull?

The only person who seems remotely realistic is the minor character, Ashleigh, who though created a bit over-the-top, is still like every smart, curious, stifled, misunderstood kid who navigates the horrors of high school and obnoxious parents with a combination of cutting, journaling, and dramatic rhetoric. When she finally grows up and breaks free, she might be interesting (if damaged). I mean, hey, at least she isn't home-schooled. She has some chance at social normalcy.

If the other characters in Miss Misery were more like Ashleigh and if Greenwald had taken a less ambitious yet more original approach (rather than using indie music references as the thread to stitch together a Baumback meets Palahniuk narrative, this might've been a good book. As it stands, though, it was a wash.

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