October 2007

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

fiction

Beauty Talk and Monsters by Masha Tupitsyn

Masha Tupitsyn's debut collection is a breathtaking mixture of tall tale and autobiography, film theory and lover’s lament, traveler’s diary and gender treatise. A novel-in-parts disguised as a bootleg memoir crossed with a Hollywood tell-all, Beauty Talk & Monsters dares us to ask if there is a point to reliability when a shifty narrator can provide so much obsessive insight.

While Tupitsyn's stories revel in arcane Hollywood gossip, they simultaneously confront the mechanisms of celebrity to reveal the messiness underneath. Tupitsyn takes detail to the extreme, wondering if Jack Nicholson was "buying coke and spreading it all over his dick like cake frosting," and asking whether Cary Grant ever took a shower while he was running around and sweating all over the place during the filming of North by Northwest. Just when the reader is worried that the celebrity fetish has gone too far, Tupitsyn turns the camera around for subtle revelation, declaring: "I don't want to be another female narrator of masculinity."

Much of Beauty Talk & Monsters dwells on the misogyny of Hollywood roles and role models. Tupitsyn expands binary gender like a bloated balloon that bounces in all directions until it blasts apart, like in Jaws, where Tupitsyn declares, "The story ends up in us, women, by satiation. Like a plunge, we learn to live with at the bottom of the ocean, find resilience in spite of, or don't. Mostly don't."

As Tupitsyn blends actor with character, movies with the outside world, her lens incorporates dissonant visions: "I've seen the way a movie can drain a room like a bathtub." But then there's a screening of Saving Private Ryan in the ruin of a medieval castle on a Croatian island where "Children hung out of the windows like laundry, trying to sneak a peak at the screen without paying for it. From above, the screen was just a floating image, ship wrecked, and didn't belong to anyone." It's this kind of personal revelation filtered through the glare of the screen that gives Beauty Talk & Monsters a shimmering intimacy.

If Tupitsyn's narrator is obsessed with the movies, she's also drawn to exploring the drama of the everyday, yet another movie. Tupitsyn states, "I don't want to remember everything unless it's for an argument or an idea or a way out," but also, "I didn't want anyone to recognize my mood, which is all an act anyway." It's mood that swells up and surrounds the filmic worlds in these stories, including everything from Roland Barthes’s poetic meanderings to the class politics of Dirty Dancing, Nicole Kidman's fake nose for her role as Virginia Woolf in The Hours to the teenaged narrator’s Agnès B bag with the word “Lolita" printed on it. Tupitsyn alternates between an appalled outrage and a flippant critical distance, collapsing the boundaries between seriousness and spectacle with sudden social critiques: "There's Soho turning into fascist forgery. I'm just another thing out of season. Never underestimate the violence of props in this world."

If the monsters in Beauty Talk are celebrities obsessed with finding the reflection of their illusion in other people's eyes, what does that reveal about the rest of us?

Beauty Talk & Monsters by Masha Tupitsyn
Semiotext(e)
ISBN: 158435044X
237 pages

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is the author of a novel, Pulling Taffy, and the editor of four nonfiction anthologies, including, most recently, Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity. Her second novel, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, will be published by City Lights in fall/winter 2008. Mattilda blogs at nobodypasses.blogspot.com.