Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer
By Rax King
193 pages. Vintage Books. Paper, $15.95.
Chuck Klosterman, in his book “The Nineties,” argues that that decade was the last one to really feel like a decade, with its own immutable values and fashions and ideas. We’ve seemed to live since, he has said, “in a period of perpetual now.”
I’m more or less of Klosterman’s age cohort (I’m eight years older), and that comment seems valid to me. Yet the young, a rising tide of them, are here to replace us, and they are bound to feel otherwise.
For example, here comes Rax King, in her ebullient book “Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer,” to make the late aughts seem like the most vivid, concrete and ecstatic moment to burst into adolescence since time out of mind.
King’s book is a well-calibrated celebration of “bad” taste: Creed, frosted lip gloss, “The Jersey Shore,” the Cheesecake Factory, the “Josie and the Pussycats” movie and (in this book’s silkiest essay) Warm Vanilla Sugar fragrance mist.
That King writes about these things while alluding to Sontag and Updike and Penelope and Odysseus without once seeming like she is otherwise slumming is part of her achievement.
She wears her literacy as if it were a nose stud. When a D.J. casually refers to Creed as “testosterone rockers from Tallahassee,” for example, King comments about that phrase, “It’s absolutely euphonious, my version of cellar door.”
Riding in hard to defend scraps of trashed culture is hardly an avant-garde position. “When we championed trash culture, we had no idea it would become the only culture,” Pauline Kael said a long time ago. If magazines banned nostalgic, self-effacing, vaguely tongue-in-cheek appreciations of Barry Manilow and Ashlee Simpson and the mullet and pro wrestling and the curly fries at Arby’s and so on, a million freelance writers would be put out of business.
Nor is it new to tuck memoir, wonton-style, inside cultural criticism, which King does. What does feel new — what’s always new, when you find it — is the glitter and squalor and joy and exactness in King’s writing. She’s opposed to distance and irony; you end up taking her seriously because she’s so opposed to the project of being taken seriously.
King writes about herself in the manner Martha Graham taught her dancers to move across the stage: She leads with her crotch. She possesses, in her telling, an incandescent libido, so mighty it could illumine a city’s electrical grid.
One chapter in “Tacky” is about “Sex and the City,” especially the character of Samantha, from whom King learned to indulge her appetites and to appreciate that life was up for grabs: “I didn’t need a boyfriend just for sex. Sex was all around me!” The men are never the right men (one is named Viper), except that they are. Like Samantha, King seems to have popped out of a Christmas cracker.
“I was always destined to be consumable,” she writes. “I was never going to become the sort of person who commands respect. And that’s fine. Some days, it’s even preferable. I pass through men’s lives like the taste of cherry Kirsch syrup down the throat. What would I do if I were something meaty and substantive? Grow old with somebody I met in high school, like I once believed I would? Miss out on all this? I’d sooner miss out on the sun.”
King knew tacky was for her when she was a child and her mother used that term to stigmatize things she thought were awesome. “I wanted to become awesome myself,” she writes, and “tacky was the answer.” She became “the sort of person who gestures a little too wildly with a cigarette during a conversation about Puddle of Mudd.”
King draws a line between tacky and trashy. The latter is “closed off and uninviting. It’s unpleasant. If tackiness is about joyfully becoming, trashiness has already become, and there’s not one joyful thing about the thing it has become.” That’s bound to be, in the long run, unless you are Dolly Parton, a difficult fence to straddle.
“Tacky” was published last fall. I’m writing about it now because a) the women I’m closest to have been swapping heavily underlined copies for weeks, b) The Times didn’t review it and c) I’m late to discover that it reads like sequential shots of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky.
King has unfettered access to her mind at 14 or 15. Her “Ode to Warm Vanilla Sugar” is in league, as coming-of-age essays go, with Nora Ephron’s “A Few Words About Breasts.”
“What I know is that you are the smell of frightened girlhood just as it teeters over the precipice of the change,” King writes. “You were a pheromonal ideal for us because we did not yet know how to smell like ourselves.” The essay only gets better from there.
Like Katie Roiphe, King arrives in praise of messy lives. Like Toni Morrison in “Song of Solomon,” she advises: “You got a life? Live it! Live the [expletive] life!” One of this book’s epigrams is from Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. The other is from Nicole Polizzi, also known as Snooki: “Do every sin that you can, you know? Have sex with an old man and steal a plant and get arrested.”
This all might get loud. “To my mind, every tacky loudmouth of a girl is behaving strategically,” King writes. “For a girl, a scream is a potent reclamation of space that cannot be claimed any other way. Everybody wants to sidle up to a pretty young girl all the time unless she’s screaming.”
So winsome is the writing in “Tacky” that, most of the time, there’s no other word for it but classy.