Before mercury, my blood used to fill thermometers.

Monday, April 22, 2013

CAN YOU SURVIVE.

Oh my goodness, I read Modelland.

Modelland is Tyra Banks' bizarre foray into young adult literature. "Oh my goodness" is what I say when I'm trying not to swear. A former employer once told me she found it spooky, how much I said "oh my goodness."

I was really frustrated that I could not just find a synopsis of this book that might help me limp my way through it — it is just shy of 1,000 digital pages. The lack of available synopses tells me what I suspected as I found myself up at 4 a.m. trudging through superfluous detail after superfluous detail: no one — alive on Earth, I think — has finished this book. It took me half a year.

Reasons to read Modelland:
  • It's female-centered! There are only two male characters of note, both of whom are essentially incidental. The main character is a young woman, the main thrust of the story is her friendships with various other girls, the primary antagonists are complex (for this reading level) women and girls including women in positions of authority, and that was surprisingly, consistently refreshing and well done considering the book's subject matter.
  • Modelland is about a world in which the only celebrities — the only figures of remotely any note — are models, and they are (and are not, all at once) exactly like models are IRL. They have powers, like flying and multiplying their forms and perpetual agelessness, but they are also vehicles for advertising held to a rigid standard of appearance. I was surprised by how the book engaged with this since Modelland the place, a magical school where, every year, special young girls are selected and whisked off to, is touted as being dark and forbidding and the models fascinating as much for their beauty as their ability to survive the terror. But "beauty" is as abstract and elusive a concept in the book as in life, and although there are facets definitively invoked to represent what is not beauty, the fact of beauty not being a real thing is articulated and wielded by characters in the book who are active, drawing conclusions, figuring things out, prioritizing their safety, and thinking of others as a result of acts of kindness, and that's great to see.
  • The character names are horrifyingly funny. The protagonist's is the absolute worst — Tookie de la Creme! — and her best friends are Dylan, Piper, and Shiraz, and it would make my life if those names Easter egg'd their way into an episode of Girls.
  • I do think of this as a significant plus: for the beginner learning to write, the whole introduction of Tookie is full of so many typical mistakes that it is worth close examination. At school, Tookie is so unremarkable, and so unloved at home, that she can just sprawl out in the hallway, shoot whipped cream into her mouth, and write in her diary in the middle of the day, and no one notices. But even prone, her clumsiness results in people tripping over her and her stuttering her brains out in an attempt at an apology. Everything Tookie does in the first few pages are so exaggerated and helpless that she does not come across as sympathetic or sad but unable to conduct herself socially to an extent that is alienating no matter the age and experience of the reader. Considering the fact that Tookie, in the end, is assertive, her confidence has been enhanced by difficult experiences, and she responds in such human ways to the way she is treated — both when she suddenly and sincerely seems to be considered beautiful by other people and when her safety is threatened — that an easier way into the character would have served as an even better payoff in the end. It takes a long time before Tookie even starts the trip to Modelland, and it's hard to hang in there with her for so long.
  • I am weary of so-bad-it's-good when it comes to books. They are a greater investment of time and energy than film. But this was ecstatically bad. This book took SUCH JOY in its bad moments. Everything has an absurd name that gets reduced within the page to an obtuse acronym. The fantasy is grounded in the familiar and convenient in a way that — and maybe I'm wrong — kids can grasp that, instead of the familiar seeming even more mundane, illumines and makes special the real. That's an achievement considering how fashion as an industry does precisely the opposite.
Reasons to avoid Modelland:
  • If you've already read 50 Shades, Twilight and so on for the trash factor, you don't need more on your plate. Unless it is your genre, in which case this is your Ulysses.
  • The one department in which Banks' errant inventiveness totally fails her is so, so ugly: the nations that make up the world that Modelland the story takes place in are not only barely elevated above the ones they mean to represent in reality, the characters that come from them are stereotyped classically. Overweight Dylan lives in a Walmart. Shiraz does nothing but speak broken English. Piper is pale and analytical. Of all the things to botch.
  • Most offensive in terms of the storytelling itself is its pace. Although the book does take joy in its bad moments, they are surrounded on all sides by painstaking action described to within an inch of its flimsy, ill-rendered life. Everything takes a long, long time to happen and, as a result, the suspense fizzles. The story does not need the hokey suspense it tries so hard to cultivate — the cause-and-effect of the events make sense — and it can only be the result of a failure to trust in the reader's attention span. When I was a member of this book's target demographic, I happily swam all the way through Little Women. I think young readers can hang on without being baited and subsequently so disappointed.
  • I am at a loss. I can't speak as effectively as I want to on this subject because at times this book was as atonal as its theme song.
  • The end is open to future installments that may or may not materialize, and criminally little that is ooed and aahed over by the narrative is resolved, which will make the reader feel really ridiculous for getting all invested in Modelland.

2 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. This book begs to be read aloud. If you encounter a copy, whisper a passage into the ears of a loved one. They will SCREEEEEAM.

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