Mastodon Farm by Mike Kleine
Here's something I never told anyone: I skimmed American Psycho. Sure, I get that Bret Easton Ellis was making a point by listing, ad naseum, the hair care products his protagonist used before emptying a nail gun into a prostitute, or writing multi-page reviews for Huey Lewis and the News albums, but that doesn't mean I enjoyed reading them. (And I never got through anything else by him.) It's the same reason I don't actually enjoy Pride and Prejudice that much: because even though the novel critiques certain vapidities, it still has to enumerate on them. Mastodon Farm comes from this same place; it critiques the vapidity of a certain type of twenty-something pop-culture novel (those "voice of a generation" books that come out every couple weeks) with a straight-faced irony that destroys the pretentiousness of said novels. Kleine is, essentially, throwing a pie at the face of pretention as it leans against a wall somewhere (or possibly pulling down its pants and spraying seltzer water in its underwear). He's created an anti-novel with no real plot, progression, and not a whole hell of a lot of honest characterization. It mostly consists of people staring into the distance very melodramatically, thinking about some other place or time that was apparently preferable to the present for some poorly-explained reason, etc. Of course, what sets it apart from the novels it's critiquing is that it's pretty funny at times, and it realizes how ridiculous it's being.
The narrator of Kleine's novel listens to Philip Glass, sincerely, while hanging out with James Franco and various walk-on celebrities. These are the sorts of details the novels Kleine parodies use in lieu of honest characterization. The authors of these other novels assume that telling us that a character listens to a certain type of music tells us something profound about the character. Throughout the novel, Kleine exhaustively details bands, books, and artwork, which act in lieu of characterization. (But of course, anyone truly "in the know" realizes the significance of these bands and artists, right?) But Kleine, as with the authors he's parodying, is telling us something about his characters. The characters wear clothes whose designers are listed but about which few or no other details are given. They read books with titles we probably recognize, but whose significance is hidden. They listen to bands which are the darlings of college radio, but again, no description of the actual music is given. These things are a frame of reference for the characters, but they don't feel anything from any of this stuff. We get names but no content. I couldn't help thinking Kleine was implying as much about the authors he's parodying as he is about these characters. Kleine also gives us pages and pages of lists -- of these books, movies, and so forth. There are MacGuffins aplenty (such as the title, which comes from a throwaway line that has nothing to do with anything), but again, they mean nothing and are forgotten fairly quickly. Essentially, these are famous people hanging out, being useless and boring. Around them, incredible things might happen, for example, during one party, "Outside: something falls from the sky and bursts into flames and one of the limo drivers is caught in the blast -- but no one notices." They're all too engrossed in themselves, in their milk and honey. And, instead of considering this a situation to envy, Kleine blows raspberries at it.
Kleine touches on many tropes of this kind of story: the idea of "I just wish things could be like they were before" pops up. Or walls not looking the same shade of white they used to. Also, people looking out over water or a valley at night, not really thinking anything. Plain-looking people who are, for some reason, suddenly alluring. Beautiful people who suddenly seem bland. Kleine also dabbles with metafiction and modernist techniques, in a tongue-in-cheek manner. He establishes certain scenes as being directed by certain filmmakers or in certain styles, such as an early '90s experimental film.
The book moves quickly, broken into brief chapters that reference bits of pop culture. James Franco seems to have raised the ire of Kleine, possibly because of his foray into writing, but the assortment of celebrities that stumble into scene and wander back out is refreshingly random. I think the best way to describe the actual act of reading this book would be something like watching a b-movie. Kleine could've easily fallen into the same trap as the books he parodies by taking himself too seriously, but he avoids this seemingly effortlessly. I'm reminded of the work of Dr. Harlan Wilson, Matthew Revert, and other Bizarro writers who lampoon pop culture with wit and talent.
Mastodon Farm by Mike Kleine