20th Century Limited

There is a point in My Little Blue Dress when the little chuckles you’ve been emitting turn into whooping guffaws, and it comes on page 41, at the beginning of the scene that’s described on the Contents page as “loses virginity in sun-dappled clearing; humankind loses its innocence in trenches of WW1.” Until this point, the narrator’s autobiographical account of her idyllic girlhood in a rural English village in the 1910s has been filled with the standard ye-olde stuff: “long afternoons in long grass; sunsets to die for; constant tink of blacksmith’s hammer,” etc., etc. Even the gentlemanly if rustic attitude of the narrator’s “deflowerer” has its period charm: ” ‘Well, it’s nat’ral for a lass to be nervous o’ ‘er first takin.’ An’ t’lad ‘as a responsibility to be gentle wi’ ‘er.’ ” He turns out to be anything but: In the next few lines, you suddenly get a lot of “industrial pounding” and intense suckling of “disproportionately large,” “fully engorged” nipples, and the drop in tone from Thomas Hardy to Penthouse Forum is so unexpected and so precipitous that you’d do a double take if the tears of laughter weren’t beginning to cloud your vision.

But then, the whole point of My Little Blue Dress is discontinuity and fragmentation – of tone, of personality, of contemporary culture itself. The book starts out as the memoir of an elderly Englishwoman who was born on January 1, 1900, and whose life story inevitably reflects the century itself. Too precisely: The chapter headings are along the lines of “1920-1929 – Jazz Age: dances around in shapeless bell-shaped hat.” You learn why as the thirties begin, when the real author of the memoir suddenly appears (“thirties thirties thirties, come on THINK”). Naturally, he turns out to be a young creative type called Bruno Maddox, who, for reasons that become clear later, has to fake the autobiography of a 100-year-old woman in the course of one frenzied night. Unfortunately, everything Bruno knows about the twentieth century comes out of a movie or TV show, which is why, on the rare occasions when he does manage to stay in character, all he has to offer is clichés about cloches.

What makes this very funny book a very serious one is the way it uses the ongoing question of authenticity and inauthenticity to explore some basic problems of contemporary American culture. As My Little Blue Dress proceeds, Bruno intrudes himself more and more into the narrative, and the portrait that emerges is a comically exaggerated but still accurate one of an early-twenty-first-century Everyman, urban-hipster division. “One of those standard young men, who Doesn’t Really Know Who He Is,” he calls himself. If he doesn’t know, Maddox suggests, it’s because the culture he lives in is so deeply and pervasively built on fakery. Slyly, the author captures Bruno’s world in all its effortful post-ness, from the clubs that look like the interiors of toasters, to the designer beers that taste like oranges, to his clothes, which self-consciously jumble together different styles, to his panicked sense that there’s nothing left to think or do.

“What if … the Past is over?” a tortured Bruno asks himself, and he goes on to express his existential terror in one of the clearest and funniest cris de coeur to see print in years; inevitably, given the superficiality of the culture that Maddox is parodying, the vehicle for this outcry is fashion. “Back in twenties Paris, even if you thought you were the most free-thinking, rule-breaking rebel in the world, it would still never even occur to you to combine a military jacket from WWI with a pair of turn-of-the-century riding boots… . But now … people getting dressed in the morning have the entire history of human clothing stretched out before them for the plundering… . They’re not in an era themselves. Eras are finished.”

My Little Blue Dress isn’t perfect. There’s far too much of it, and things just fizzle out toward the end. But it’s nonetheless a pitch-perfect account of how it feels to be part of a culture that’s better at showing you what to wear than what to believe in. (Bruno, like so many of us, is “waiting for life to feel like … it was supposed to feel.”) Bruno Maddox may complain that our “culture consists of nothing but recycled, reanimated art forms of yore,” but his own comic creation is a real original.

There’s much to like about Cranberry Queen, which takes the form of a (not at all fake) first-person narrative by Diana Moore, a thirtysomething marketing director for a hot Internet company who’s “brown of hair, nine of shoe, wide of thigh,” and whose parents and brother are killed by a drunk driver on page 5. In tiny chapters of only a few pages each – you half expect a commercial break between them – Cranberry Queen traces the course of Diana’s recovery after she leaves Manhattan and spends a few days with a bunch of (what else?) kindly rural types in the cranberry bogs of the Jersey Pine Barrens. There are clichés here – the rural types say things like “Just why would a pretty girl like you want to live in that godforsaken place?,” meaning the Village – but there’s also some vivid and original writing: At one point, Diana imagines that her kindly aunt Margaret as a large, delicate fish, with “white, tiny slender bones attached to each other in a kind of fish lace.” And Diana herself comes across as charming, her voice successfully navigating between the Scylla of flirtatious self-deprecation and the Charybdis of blasé, black-clad glibness familiar from so much fiction about, and by, New Yorkers.

But about halfway into a book where Diana is supposed to explore “avenues of change and renewal” – at the point, to be exact, when three guys, two of them with attractively stubble-dusted chins, arrive on the scene – you realize that the avenue she’s really interested in is the one that leads to the altar. I’m not sure what to make of a novel that kills off three people in order to land its heroine in a place where she can meet a cute, “real” guy, except that, whatever its appeal, it has the heart of one of those Lifetime made-for-TV movies, in which every trauma is just the excuse for a romance. This, perhaps, is where you’re reminded that the author is also a movie producer. “If we were in a movie scene,” a climactic sentence goes, “this would be the part where a helicopter would film us from above.” Passages like this, along with a casting director’s approach to character (the nice guys are tall and stubbly; the annoying guy is short and bald), make you wonder how deep an exploration of emotions Cranberry Queen really is. Whether, in other words, it’s less about spiritual renewal than (inadvertently) about the culture of recycled surfaces.

My Little Blue Dress
By Bruno Maddox
Viking; 296 pages; $24.95.
Cranberry Queen
By Kathleen DeMarco
Talk Miramax Books; 264 pages; $21.95.

20th Century Limited