Whoever said that kids these days don't value a dollar? Judging from three recent post-Generation X novels -- Jeff Gomez's "Geniuses of Crack," W.A. Burgess' "Cowards" and Douglas Rushkoff's "Ecstasy Club" -- pulp exploitation is alive and well, only now it's brought to you by major houses and spun as "literature." Voice of the streets. Cries in the wilderness. That kind of stuff. The marketing of subcultural rebellion is nothing new, but rarely have so many self-declared members of 20-something subcultures offered themselves (and their "scenes") so willingly for commercial appropriation. To have Elizabeth Wurtzel's "Prozac Nation" bandied about as a testament to some kind of generational ennui was galling enough. But now, it seems, the deluge is upon us, and three more young authors have produced books guaranteed to embarrass the pants off of significant portions of their cohort.
Take Jake from "Melrose Place." Lower his SAT scores by, say, 300 points. Give him a Seattle "grunge" make-over, circa 1992. Accord him the winsome but frankly mush-headed appeal that the more vicious members of the music press grant Evan Dando. Voila! You have Mark Pellion, "hero" of "Geniuses of Crack" -- bandleader of Bottlecap, future alternahunk and unwitting sellout to the evil culture industry mills of a major record label. Take your standard rock drummer. A drummer to whom the following joke could apply: "Q: How do you know when the drummer's stage riser is level? A: Drool comes out of both sides of his mouth." Lower his SAT scores by 500 points. Make him just self-conscious enough that he has a hard time getting laid. You have Steve, the drummer. Finally, take your standard rock bassist. (Why are bassists usually silent, enigmatic types who tend to dwell in the shadows of their frontmen? Because bassists are, by and large, dumb as posts.) Lower his SAT scores by 500 points. Make him just cute enough so he can get laid ... by his hair stylist. You have Gary, the bassist.
Now, give these three Billboard hopefuls the depth and dynamism of those life-sized cardboard cutouts usually found in the forms of Marilyn Monroe and Captain Kirk. Have two of them fall in love (Steve can't get laid, remember?) with women with the depth and dynamism of your average posable action figure, say, Malibu Barbie, but like, with a life, you know? Have the author get as far under the skin of these characters as life-sized cardboard cutouts and posable action figures will allow. Have them move around a bit, talk some, think occasionally. Have them do this for 416 pages.
Naturally, with a little luck (and perhaps some graft), you too can be Jeff Gomez, promising young novelist, encouraged by Scribner to write not one but two novels about the above characters ("Geniuses of Crack" is a sequel to "Our Noise," which chronicles the birth of Bottlecap), and blurbed by the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post. God knows how he filled the pages of his prequel, but in the puzzlingly titled "Geniuses of Crack" (heroin, not crack, makes a brief appearance; as for geniuses, see above), Gomez takes Bottlecap from the dead-end confines of Kitty, Va., to big, bad Los Angeles to record their debut for a major label. Seduced by the impossibly diabolical (and pointlessly allusive) Henry James, label exec., Mark and Bottlecap sign their lives away to the puppet masters of Pacific Media Arts International, and lose their innocence in the process.
Now, despite the cookie-cutter characters, "Geniuses" wouldn't be so bad an airport read if Gomez had included a healthy amount of weird sex and bad drugs, and if it hadn't been done so much better years ago by Jack Chick, comic book evangelist. In one of his infamous mini-comic tracts, titled "Angels?" Chick, with an economy clearly beyond Gomez, spins a brief morality tale of a down-on-their-luck Christian metal band who make the mistake of signing a recording contract (in blood!) with a slick producer named Lew Siffer. Needless to say, the foolhardy Angels achieve the success they've been praying for (along with your standard rock star perks -- chicks, drugs, vampirism and death), but by the time they find out who their promoter really is, they're on a highway to hell, which in Chick's cosmology features a roiling lake of fire and chubby demons who poke you with pitchforks and "Haw! Haw!" at you for eternity.
When a fundamentalist Christian makes you look tame, you know you're in trouble, and Gomez should take note. Should he be allowed to write another Bottlecap novel, one can only hope that he delivers on the promise of Henry James' cackling malevolence and reveals that he is actually ... Satan! Cardboard cutouts do burn so nicely in hellfire.
For a more "authentic" look (Hey, Irvine "Trainspotting" Welsh says so!) at the lifestyle of a struggling underground band, masochists may direct their attention to W.A. Burgess' "Cowards," another attempt by a "promising young novelist" to provide an uncensored account of the travails of these darn kids today. Since this is Burgess' debut, every effort is made to confuse browsers into thinking this is an Irvine Welsh novel. In a cockeyed, degraded typeface that suggests the 100th monkey on a crank binge, Welsh blurbs emblazon both front and back covers -- the already embarrassing design frantically signals "industrial," "grunge," "drugs" and "authentic" -- including such nuggets as : "If you want to read culture from its source, before its appropriation and sanitization by commercial interests, then pick up this book." Perhaps Welsh's status as a Brit excuses him from mistaking St. Martin's Press for "culture from its source." Who knew? But this little mix-up didn't prevent those Frankfurt Schoolers over at St. Martin's from getting their mileage out of Welsh's subcultural cachet.
Inside "Cowards," we find another band, the Otis Process, on the verge of their own version of greatness, a version many sellouts away from Bottlecap's. Based in (where else?) Seattle, the members of the Otis Process are nearly as butt-stupid as those of Bottlecap, yet they came by their lobotomies honestly, with lots and lots of drugs. They're also a great deal hipper. If Bottlecap are the Lemonheads, the Otis Process are the Butthole Surfers. As for their appetite for drugs, not since "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" have such a wide variety of drugs been sampled by so few, in so little time. Yet where Thompson makes inspired lunacy out of his chemical cocktails, Burgess just makes a mess. The fatal flaw, of course, is heroin, not a drug with a great purchase on humor.
If the reader is not familiar with heroin abuse, Burgess makes sure he knows that heroin users vomit. A lot. On the carpet, on themselves, on others. They also occasionally turn blue and die. A reader with any psychedelic experience will also be surprised to find that the junkies in the Otis Process regularly drop acid, even when they're jonesing for dope. Not exactly a good remedy for withdrawal. "Hmm, my body is aching for a highly addictive substance. I think I'll take another substance that magnifies all my senses for 12 hours!" Then again, Burgess' characters often have "conversations" that consist solely of various permutations of "fuck," "huh?" "whu?" "man" and "dick," so any appeal to reason in understanding the behavior of the Otis Process is fruitless.
That said, compared to Gomez, Burgess is practically Faulkner. He at least appears to have taken some creative writing classes, evidenced in the bad (in that creative writing 101 kind of way), italicized passages where we get impressionistic, yet "real," glances at the deep inner feelings of our narrator. With some more tutelage, Burgess might make a novelist yet, instead of another willing subcultural stooge exploited by the neo-Marxists at St. Martin's for a quick post-"Trainspotting" buck.
Another young debut novelist, Douglas Rushkoff, is certainly familiar with the opportunistic publicizing of subcultural scenes. The author of the cyberdelic tell-all "Cyberia" and editor of the "The Genx Reader," Rushkoff always seems to have a book out on the most recent buzzwords crossing marketers' lips. For his first stab at fiction, however, he goes back to cyberia, i.e. the Bay Area circa '94-95, and the techno-pagan rave culture popularized by the magazine Mondo 2000.
Dubbed a "satire" and a "send-up" in its press release, "Ecstasy Club" is nothing of the sort. In some parallel universe where "satire" means disguising real figures with thinly veiled pseudonyms and uncritically celebrating their exploits, maybe. But in this universe, Rushkoff's novel has more in common with "Primary Colors" -- with a little "Prozac Nation" thrown in for maximum generational appeal. "Ecstasy Club" concerns a troupe of idealistic young rave kids who take over an abandoned piano factory in Oakland and attempt to jump-start their (and the world's) consciousness into a new dimension by throwing raves, consuming psychedelics and tinkering with mind machines.
Aiding the club in their efforts are Samuel Clearwater (Timothy Leary), Renn A. Sanz (Genesis P-Orridge), and other transparently disguised luminaries. Everything would be transcendentally hunky-dory in cyberia if it weren't for an evil world conspiracy afoot to crush the club's mission and curtail all this pesky novelty and evolutionary potential. Involving E.T. Harman (L. Ron Hubbard), his Cosmotology (Dianetics) cult and Plugged (Wired) magazine, and strongly reminiscent of a similar conspiracy in Bruce Wagner's "Wild Palms," this grand cabal seeks to appropriate the Ecstasy Club's evolutionary meme and use it to stifle global transcendence and retain psychic dictatorship over the human race. Needless to say, some of this stuff was embarrassing enough in real life, and its novelization simply amplifies the groan quotient.
Unlike Gomez and Burgess, however, Rushkoff knows how to spin a tale at a nice pitch. "Ecstasy Club" moves briskly, has just the right amount of sex and drugs, and keeps the reader hooked with strategic chapter endings of the "Everything was bliss. Then we heard the explosion" variety. A reader less familiar with the novel's source material might find it wildly entertaining. Hell, it might even spawn a new genre: the cyber-potboiler. This is more than can be said for "Cowards" or "Crack," whose literary roots reach back to a vastly superior work that created and killed its own genre in under two hours: Roger Ebert's "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." Those titillated by tales of hopeful young musicians corrupted by hard drugs and the lure of fame are better off watching "Entertainment Tonight." With apologies to an old anti-drug slogan, novels like these are for people who can't handle reality.