Well, it’s finally happened. “Popular culture,” that realm of celebrity stalkers, glitzy ad campaigns, pro wrestling, Disney-channel starlets, and round-the-clock news coverage of mass shootings, has broken through into “serious” literature. With his debut story collection, Cosmo, Spencer Gordon manages to poke fun at our society’s fixation and obsession with popular culture while also acknowledging and examining that fixation as a genuine component of our cultural consciousness.
The diversity of Gordon’s subject matter across Cosmo’s ten stories is certainly commendable, the one commonality among them being that any one of the stories’ basic premises could have been lifted from a supermarket tabloid. Much has already been said about the collection’s more oddball ideas: Matthew McConaughey’s naked vision-quest drive through the desert, a Miley Cyrus stalker’s courtroom defense, an aging adult industry stud being coaxed into a rubber suit to film dinosaur porn. The best demonstration of Gordon’s talent is that he somehow manages to keep all of these stories from veering into the silly or ridiculous and that the goofiness never ruins the potential for profundity and intellectual depth.
However, these headlining stories, the ones most hyped in publisher Coach House Books’ media releases and various outside reviews, are not the collection’s strongest entries. Not by a long shot. “Journey to the Centre of Something” relies too heavily on the hook of driving around with a naked Matthew McConaughey. The opening story, “Operation Smile,” about a Miss USA contestant overcome with anxiety at the thought of falling, is a bit of a dud. “Transcript: Appeal of the Sentence,” the one about Miley Cyrus’ stalker, is one 3,000 word sentence. This is a considerable technical feat but the story simply doesn’t reach the same dizzying heights as Gordon’s better efforts.
The real stand-out stories have received only passing mentions, some even ignored completely in most of Cosmo’s many rave reviews. “This Is Not an Ending” is a simultaneously sympathetic and chilling examination of Pierre LeBrun (not the ESPN writer, but the mass murderer who killed four people in a shooting rampage in Ottawa in 1999). Though lacking the tongue-in-cheek humour of most of the other entries, this is a thought-provoking look at mass shootings and their place within pop culture.
“The Land of Plenty,” arguably the funniest story, is told through a one-sided string of emails between a cash-strapped Leonard Cohen and an ad executive at Subway negotiating a spokesman deal. Through the emails, Cohen insists that the ad campaign will only work if he is able to serve as an ironic spokesman (how many ironic fast food ads have you seen?) and his first pitch at a tagline is, “because SUBWAY, you obviously know the secret— that life is shit.” There are many emails from Cohen but none of the responses from the ad exec appear and so the form itself becomes an interesting part of the storytelling.
Gordon deserves praise and applause for his creative use of language and form. In trying to treat a severe speech impediment, Pierre LeBrun’s speaking coach tells him, “English has strict, rigid word order. We think in subject, verb, object. Active sentences. We think in chronological, linear terms, as everyone knows, but it’s even there in our text, our written language. It’s encoded.” Gordon is obviously interested in this concept and finding interesting ways to subvert it. The technical control over form and language really is impressive, even in the case of “Transcript: Appeal of the Sentence,” which may stumble in some areas but is still certainly easy to appreciate on the level of outright skill.
But the absolute best stories in this collection are quite straightforward, avoiding the kind of literary showiness of the rest of the collection. That is not to say that these more traditional (in terms of form) stories have less skill. In fact, they are the most skillfully rendered entries of the collection. “Last Words” follows a failed writer and former smoker who, after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, starts chain-smoking and looking to finally write something of merit. “Jobbers,” the best of an impressive bunch, tells of a teenage girl caring for her younger brother Eddy who suffers from a serious brain injury and how she indulges his obsession with professional wrestling. This is one of those rare stories that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. The girl’s devotion to Eddy is uplifting but the reality of the limitations of his experience is too great to be ignored.
One of the reasons pop culture is so difficult to write about and why many writers so often avoid it is because of the speed at which it changes. By contrast, published literature emerges very slowly. The story “Wide and Blue and Empty” is about a divorced mom who “buys the internet” and learns to use ICQ Messenger in order to communicate with her son, an idea that already feels dated despite the fact that the book has been out less than six months. Miley Cyrus, Matthew McConaughey, Frankie Muniz and other figures with whom Gordon populates his stories can hardly be claimed as 2013’s hottest stars. In a few years, or even a few months, who will remember enough about them to connect with these stories? But maybe that’s the point. By using pop culture so specifically, Gordon has situated his stories in a very particular moment in time.
In an interview for Canada Arts Connect Magazine, Gordon asserts that “pop culture is culture, and ignoring it means we are deliberately distorting reality in service to a middle-class idea of what ‘proper’ literature should depict.” In this way, Cosmo itself becomes an intriguing and insightful cultural artifact. Though if you’re not interested in such bookish ideas, you should at least check out the dinosaur porn story.
Coach House | 200 pages | $18.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1552452677