Back in 1991, Alex Shakar read an article on trendspotters in
Spy. He thought there might be an idea for a novel in there, but he filed
it away for several years. A few years later, after publishing the short story
collection City in Love, Shakar remembered that article. "I thought that
trendspotters would be the perfect people," he recalls, "through which to look
at whether our increasing tendency to express ourselves through our
purchases gives us power or leeches our power away." The braintrust at
Tomorrow Ltd., the trenspotting firm in The Savage Girl, is a perfect
example of the breed: part business people, part cultural gurus, and loaded
with elaborate theories about what trends in fashion say about our culture and
society--including a great term that Shakar invented, "paradessence," which
refers to a consumer item's paradoxical essence. Ice cream's paradessence, for
example, is that it invokes both innocence and indulgence.
RH: How did you hit upon these great theories about consumer
goods and cultural identity?
AS: I did a lot of research, read everything I could get my hands on in
terms of market research and behavioral psychology, all the literature I could
find. I'm not a trendspotter, but I did educate myself about their terminology. I
followed the changes in the advertising industry. It made me a lot more aware
of how deeply we're committed as a society to the project of expressing our
identities and ideals through the products we consume.
I found some truly weird and interesting stuff, but not the one type of theory I
was looking for. I ended up walking around supermarkets myself, watching
commercials, paying attention to what had an effect on me, and then trying to
figure out why it did. That's how I came up with the idea of paradessence.
It's been really interesting to have people who read the book come up to me
with examples they've seen themselves and tell me, "Hey, this is exactly like
your book!" If I've helped people understand the world in some new way,
that's really cool. Of course, the scary side of that was meeting with the
marketing people at HarperCollins and having them hold up the book and tell
me, "This should be a textbook for marketing classes!"
RH: Have you heard anything from the fine folks at General
Foods and Nestl é?
AS: You know, I heard about that Fay Weldon book, the one she'd written
for Bulgari, and I think I'm pretty safe from that sort of thing. It's easy for me
to get on my high horse, I suppose, and say I'd never write a book for, say, the
Gap. But I really don't think they'd come up to me and ask.
RH: I was thinking more along the lines of official disapproval
of concepts in your book like, say, Nestl é Shit.
AS: I was worried about that, and so was HarperCollins. My editor wasn't
sure if I could use it, and asked very tenatively if I was willing to change the
names of the companies. But I really think that would have been chickening
out. I put a disclaimer in the front of the book, and I think that should be
In the past, when corporations have gone after artists, it's usually backfired.
All it gets them is negative publicity. But it's still a real danger, and the writer
who does it is taking a real risk. McDonald's, for example, has vigorously tried
to sue any critique of it out of existence. People who want to talk about the
quality of the meat, or where it comes from, or the effects on the
environment...they become deeply enmeshed in lawsuits that consume their
I had to get the cover of the book approved, because it has those rows of
cookies and crackers on the shelves. Finally, the lawyers for HarperCollins
said it was okay, because I didn't actually say anything about cookies or
crackers in the book. If I'd wanted to put ice cream on the cover, it might have
been a problem.
RH: You clearly had a lot of fun building Middle City from the
foundations up, naming its landmarks, laying out its
AS: I started writing the novel in Austin, where I was doing a post-
graduate fellowship, so the first draft was actually set in Austin, and it was sort
of a slacker novel. The city gradually evolved beyond that, and the characters
evolved with it. Ursula wasn't even a character in most of the early drafts, and
her sister, Ivy, started out dead, until I realized she had to be a living,
breathing character. Once I brought her to life, and started having fun with
her personality, her delusions, she became a major part of the novel.
Everybody has their own idea of what city I'm "really" talking about. Is it New
York, is it Chicago, Honolulu, Seattle? (smiles) I took pieces from a lot of
different cities, and I had fun mapping it out, actually mapping it out on paper
and setting down its geography.
I think it serves a good purpose, which is that it helps people approach the
book like a fantasy at first, even if it's just in a very subtle way. The reader
doesn't feel implicated immediately, because it's not their city, so he or she can
read it without any defensiveness. But as it becomes more and more like our
world, the eerie surreal parts take on a new layer of resonance because deep
down, there's some degree of recognition.
RH: Those moments are extreme and bizarre, but somehow also
AS: It was difficult for me to approach writing a satire of the
advertisting industry, because it's an industry that pretends to satirize itself so
often. It's a culture that appropriates critique easily. Irony used to be a tool
artists could use to critique the system, but advertising has coopted that. I
remember when I came up with the idea for diet water, and I thought to myself
that it was completely absurd, too over the top. But then I thought some more,
and it was perfect for the theme of the book, the idea that trends begin as
reactions against consumerism which are then harnessed, incorporated
into the machine as it were.
RH: And then they actually do come out with caffeinated
AS: ...and vitamin water and fruit water, and now there's something
called "oxygen water," which gives you more oxygen in case you're not
getting enough from the air, I guess. I tried it, it makes you feel pretty good. It
makes you feel better and cleaner somehow, even though it's purely
RH: Critical reaction to the book often seems to suggest that the
cultural landscape you've written about no longer exists after
AS: The culture has changed a lot since the attacks, undoubtedly. I was
here in New York when it happened; my dad and I watched the towers burn
from our roof. And I went out, wandered around to see if I could help, if I could
do anything. But after a couple hours...I don't have welding skills, I don't have
medical skills... So I go home to watch TV, and the mayor comes on and says,
"You know what everybody can do? Go out and go shopping."
A few days later, we get the same message from the president.
One of the central themes of my book is our growing confusion of the two ideas
of citizenship and consumerism. In a way, the politicians are right:
consumption is power. The more our society consumes, the more our economy
grows. But I think we're all also starting to realize that consumption is
powerlessness. The more our nation consumes, the more we become dependent
on dictators for the sake of oil, destroying ecosystems for the sake of food...
That's what my book is about. It's about how consumerism effects us at an
emotional or psychological or even spiritual level.
Even before the attacks, we were told that buying things was how we should
help stop the economy from slumping--but now it's patriotic to be a consumer,
and GM comes out with the "keep America rolling" commercial... Well, I think
it's time to start taking our other duties as citizens in a democratic society as
seriously. This is a good time for us to take a hard look at the course we're on,
the practices of our daily lives.
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