The Light Stuff

A Rough Guide to the Flash and Trash of Summer Reading

The Art Of The Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch's Lost Highway
By Slavoj Zizek
University of Washington Press, 48 pp., $14.95 paper

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Slovenian rock-star philosopher Slavoj Zizek follows up recent opuses on the Cartesian paradigm in Western academia (The Ticklish Subject) and the hidden lineage between Christianity and Marxism (The Fragile Absolute) by subjecting David Lynch's Lost Highway to a furious Lacanian once-over. Roundly panned on its 1997 release, Lynch's brash psychosexual noir is not only ripe for revisionist appraisal, but—with its oedipal tangle of alter egos and mindfuck Möbius-strip architecture—a richly porous screen onto which the always excitable Zizek can project madly.

Rosignano Solvay, Sea 2. August 1998 (detail), from Beach & Disco by Massimo Vitali
Massimo VitalI, from Beach & Disco, published by Steidl
Rosignano Solvay, Sea 2. August 1998 (detail), from Beach & Disco by Massimo Vitali

Even more than David Foster Wallace in his touchingly impassioned essay "David Lynch Keeps His Head," Zizek makes a case for Lynch as a serious artist, as opposed to a "genius naïf" (per Pauline Kael) with creepily direct access to his (and your) id. Mulling over the "paradigmatically postmodern" Lynchian universe, Zizek indulges in his own love for paradox, seeking out and picking apart—in Lynch's films and elsewhere—the "coincidence of opposites." He compares the prototypical noir femme fatale (whose punishment is inevitably eclipsed by a "spectral triumph") with the neo-noir version, the castrating bitch who gets away with it(e.g., The Last Seduction); recasts the abusive patriarch in Thomas Vinterberg's Celebration as the fantasized defense against the real unimaginable horror of Roberto Benigni's concentration-camp fabulist in Life Is Beautiful; applies a similar logic to Saving Private Ryan by considering Spielberg's gory naturalism as a shield against the more traumatizing anonymity of Nintendo-style modern warfare; and discusses the ongoing spate of alternate-destiny movies in the context of cyberspace, which he calls the logical "new artistic medium." Much of this applies only tangentially to Lost Highway, and the dazzle of the individual insights tends to dim for lack of a coherent big picture, but this 48-page volume is more than sustained by its author's acrobatic reach, his knack for whiplash allusions, his torrential prose (uncommonly lively for a theory orgy), and his playful, almost alchemical rendering of the most opaque Lacanian ideas. —Dennis Lim

A Density of Souls
By Christopher Rice
Talk Miramax Books, 274 pp., $23.95
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A portentous title; tormented families haunted by dark unspeakable secrets; ancient mausoleums shimmering through a haze of summer rain; soft-focus homoeroticism, a bloodthirsty young man, and the consuming fury of a hurricane named Brandy, all set against a backdrop of New Orleans' hothouse fetor. . . . No, it's not Anne Rice, but her 21-year-old son, Christopher, making his literary debut with a novel that stakes a claim to fictional turf occupied by the likes of the Jackies—Suzanne and Collins.

To its credit, A Density of Souls tackles ambitious stuff: Four childhood friends—Stephen, Greg, Brandon, and Meredith (the only girl)—are forever altered by the gay-bashing Stephen endures at the hands of Greg and Brandon once they enter high school. But Rice's characterizations are thin—mean homophobic jocks, a nice gay athlete with ulcers, a bulimic cheerleader battered by her boyfriend, and Stephen himself, who is portrayed as a wispy blond sexually enthralled by the athletic elite that torments him. Rice's descriptions of high school life are obviously heartfelt; they're just not terribly interesting. But he has a good sense of pacing, and once A Density of Souls graduates from high school, the plot rackets along through a labyrinth featuring fundamentalist attacks on gays and revelations about Stephen's past.

Christopher Rice will be appearing on MTV's The Real World, and that's where he'll meet his ideal audience: people for whom high school is still the defining moment, or adulthood a scary, exciting roller coaster they've just embarked upon. —Elizabeth Hand

Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon
By Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock
Norton, 370 pp., $29.95

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Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock's "unauthorized biography" Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon is misleading on two counts. First, it's really less a biography than a critical review of her career. Second, the book is more concerned with destroying Sontag's iconic status than in tracing its cultural development. The principal charge brought against the woman Norman Podhoretz once deemed the "Dark Lady of American Letters" has to do with the way she's exploited her seductive good looks while hypocritically pretending to be above the whole image thing. National Enquirer beware: Not only has Sontag had affairs with many world-renowned photographers, but she has even vetted the author photos selected for her books!

Deconstructing Susan, a more fitting description of Rollyson and Paddock's pseudo-academic smear job, inventories the contradictions between Sontag's life and work. (Her fascination with gay-inspired camp art, for example, is juxtaposed with her failure to declare herself a lesbian—this despite her well-publicized dalliances with the playwright Maria Irene Fornes and photographer Annie Leibovitz.) Curiously, the first few chapters outlining the early years read like boilerplate hagiography. One sentence sums up the treatment: "With her long dark hair, imposing carriage, and Western temperament, [Sontag] seemed a noble savage." (Yuck!) Not surprisingly, a backlash effect against the authors' own susceptibility to the Sontag myth sets in. Whether this is the natural process of the biographers' disillusionment or simply the frustration provoked by Sontag's adamant refusal to grant personal access, the result is a holier-than-thou carp-fest (stoked by ex-friends and rabid detractors) of an indeed glamorous if admittedly hard-to-pin-down literary legacy.

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