February 15, 2008

Mini-review: "Clown Girl," by Monica Drake

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. Click here for the full list.)

Clown Girl, by Monica Drake
Clown Girl (book; 2006)
By Monica Drake
Hawthorne Books / ISBN: 0-9766311-5-6

I've talked here before concerning the surprising things I'm learning about books these days, now that I've been a daily critic myself for about nine months now, and especially two factors that more heavily influence what we think of a book than a lot of us realize -- of where we in particular are in our own lives when we read the book (in terms of age, experience, career level, etc), and also how much we've heard about a book before we've read it ourselves. And really, if you want a perfect example of what I'm talking about, let's take today's book under discussion, Monica Drake's highly popular 2006 debut novel Clown Girl, a book that for a couple of years now has been getting talked about in glowing terms from just a whole pile of people I know and admire; I mean, c'mon, the introduction was written by Chuck Freaking Palahniuk, who by the way happened to be a member of the academic writing workshop where this novel first took shape.

And then I read it. Hmm. And I realized that it's not so much that this novel is truly unique or original that it's been getting so much attention, but that it uses a highly unique and inventive trick for telling an otherwise pretty plain story -- that is, Drake tells the story of a struggling young artist in the corporate world through the metaphor of professional clowns, a gimmick I can literally picture a tableful of dour grad students with tasteful beards and drab GAP sweaters delighting over when first coming across at some summer workshop in some quaint upper-class small town in the Hudson River Valley. Because admittedly, the gimmick is a cute one, one that can be stretched further than you ever thought a "clown in the corporate world" one could; how our unstable hero Nita got into the whole industry in the first place for its performance-art qualities, because of the grand tradition of French mimes and Cirque du Soleil and all the rest, but now finds herself working corporate parties and other "red-nose events" in order to pay the bills. And how her fellow-clown boyfriend is off in northern California as we speak, interviewing for "clown college" (i.e. grad school at UC Berkeley); and how she is getting pressured by her lesbian co-workers to get into the erotic/stripper side of the whole clown scene for extra bucks; and how when she misplaces her rubber chicken, she puts up flyers all over the neighborhood as if it were a lost dog. Yeah, cute, like I said, a trick just good enough to hold together an especially strong slam poem or New Yorker short story.

Ah, but here's the problem, that the gimmick wears thin in a 300-page novel; and when it does, you're left with a pretty typical grad-school storyline at its core, one that could be substituted with the plotline of a thousand other stories by grad students without anyone ever being the wiser. Because when all is said and done, Clown Girl is ultimately about unpleasant white slackers in their twenties, deliberately living in sh-tty neighborhoods not because they have to but because they are rejecting their white-bread middle-class backgrounds, pursuing lives as conceptual artists and small-level drug dealers and full-time academes as a way of pushing off real life as long as possible. And this gets into the complication I was talking about -- because I used to like such novels, see, back when I was in my early/mid-twenties myself and living more of that kind of lifestyle myself, and can understand why so many people I respect have been going nuts over this book recently. It's not a bad book, that's the point I really want to hammer home today; it's just that I've read this story way too many times in my life now, a story I find less compelling with each year I get older, a story that ultimately cannot be saved by a literary gimmick no matter how cute that gimmick is.

And this gets into the second complication I mentioned before -- that since I had heard so many great things about this book going into it, I'm tempted to be more disappointed than normal, and to give the novel a lower score than it deserves. And the truth is that it doesn't deserve a low score -- it's a well-written book, after all, a tight and plain-spoken story that you can get through in a single day if you're dedicated. It's just that you need to be careful with this book, to not expect too much out of it, to accept that it's a product of an academic environment and therefore has all the trappings of grad-school literature. Do this and the book is sure to entertain; expect more like I did, and you're bound to be disappointed.

Out of 10: 7.5

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:52 AM, February 15, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |