Thoughts on the debut novel by Alex Shakar.
Alex Shakar’s first novel, The Savage Girl, takes readers into the world of trend-spotting by going beneath the surface of commercial campaigns to sell tribal fashion and diet water to the `deep structures’ that Chomsky insists reveal the `true basis of the phenomenon of culture.’ That is, The Savage Girl is very much concerned with languages of signification – the means by which people communicate through kinesics, clothes, fads, the Internet, and speech. Shakar’s themes of consumerism also echo Claude Levi-Strauss’s concepts of bricolage and totemism, as well as Roland Barthes’s idea of the language of garment systems, in this post-ironic novel about a post-ironic, consumer age.
At the start of The Savage Girl, readers meet Ursula Van Urden, a starving artist cum advertising natural who returns to Middle City to take care of her younger sister Ivy after a mental breakdown. While there, Ursula takes a job as a trendspotter for Tomorrow Ltd., a firm that identifies fads in order to spin them off into commercial products. Her boss, Chas Lacouture, gives Ursula one instruction for her new job: find the future. Ironically, Ursula does so by developing the concept of a savage girl based on a homeless young woman she spots, living in the park, hunting pigeons and wearing the skins of squirrels. The genius of the savage girl’s look, according to Chas, is that it’s post-ironic, while Post-Irony, Chas believes, will usher in the Lite Age. It is the Next Big Thing, a way for consumers, and more importantly, for producers to have it both ways – if, as Chas believes, he can convince consumers that buying Savage Girl clothing and paraphernalia is a great way to resist those who would control them through science and reason.
In this novel, then, there is a chain of evolutionary events for the consumer, from the savage mind moving toward the idealization of a real product. Shakar further complicates matters by riffing on Roland Barthes’s semantics of fashion, whereby “image-clothing” (photographs/ drawings of fashion) may be reconciled with “the written garment” (description of clothing). Just as Barthes hopes that the described dress and the photographed dress can “recover a single identity,” Shakar seems to hope that Smirkers, Savages, and Cyborgs may be reconciled with Barthes’s verbal, iconic, and technical languages. This reconciliation is especially seen in the development of the commercial savage girl look where a combination of garments can function as words strung together to form a sentence, and that sentence, linked with other sentences of fashion, forms the consumer language that dictates, among other things, next spring’s hip color, or the outcome of a presidential election.
Chas seems to be the ideal bricoleur, someone capable of fixing things on the fly, of using whatever is handy. When Ursula pitches the idea of using “shit” as an advertising campaign, everyone laughs it off but Chas, who develops a campaign for Nestle: “Shit – everyone’s doing it.” Again, the more refined that society thinks it’s becoming, the more retro it actually becomes. Primitive man did it first, and he did it better.
Neither Shakar or his Savage Girl seem to be overly amused by today’s society, but he doesn’t like pandering to it either. His Mid-City isn’t New York now or yet-to-come (although with its Disney townships and a section named Hipsterville, it seems just on the horizon). The characters who populate Middle City are stuck in the same rut: moving from the last big thing to the next big thing because everyone has to in order to relate to each other – that’s the effect that pop culture demands. We’re cast as pariahs if we aren’t following the latest reality television show. Shakar’s characters are all vehicles of production. If we are to understand the roles of everyday people as defined by the overly perceptive Javier for example, another trend spotter, then we’re all in the business of creating surfaces by which we live our lives. What’s more, consumers know of the surfaces and demand them. The number of short-lived fads within the past few years are mind-boggling, with everything from Pokeman trading cards to boy bands, to reality TV, with enough versions of each to make one feel hyper connected, i.e., disconnected from the earth.