BOOK REVIEW / Dancing prawns and chocolates on pillows: Giles Smith sorts out the good from the bad in Paul Fussell's quirky survey of American taste: Bad: The Dumbing of America - Paul Fussell: Simon & Schuster pounds 6.99
Saturday 06 February 1993
Or rather, to make Fussell's distinction, of BAD taste. Here is the difference between the merely bad and the plainly BAD. Bad things are 'dog-do on the sidewalk, scarlet fever'. But a BAD thing is 'something phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant, or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright, or fascinating.' So, for Fussell, a bathroom tap which cuts your hand is a bad tap; but a tap sculpted in fake gold eezi-kleen chromium to represent a dolphin with its mouth open is a BAD tap. This looks like a workable distinction, though it's a shame it's such a typographically ugly one; there are pages of this book with capital letters spattered all over them, and they look about as welcoming as a sheet of calculus.
Still, off we go, separating the good from the BAD. 'Being alert to the distinction,' Fussell says early on, 'is a large part of the fun of being alive today.' This has you thinking he's going to play it for laughs, but one of the confusing things about BAD is that you're never quite sure if Fussell is joy-riding or if he's really driving at something.
The publishers are right behind that second notion: 'Sociology' says the category marker at the top of Bad's back cover. But it may be that the joy-ride is the more successful trip. At times here, you're belting along in the company of someone with an opinion on home- made, hand-held signs displayed at televised sporting events. ('If they say only 'Way to Go, Lefty]' they are harmless. But BAD ones say, 'John 3.16'.') You're in the passenger seat beside someone who is willing to slap down poets who use 'socko-erotic beginnings like, 'A clitoris is a kind of brain' (Alice Notley)' and to take issue with the person who wrote the menu on which 'three pink prawns joyfully dance their way through a light sauce of sweet lemon juice'.
The book is at its best when it's lashing out like this. BAD actors are Ernest Borgnine and Sally Field. BAD conductors include Zubin Mehta and Sir Neville Marriner. Why the hell not? The Statue of Liberty is BAD, too: 'that archetypal manifestation of the national yearning for kitsch'. The United States Navy, meanwhile, is guilty of BAD missile firing - BAD, rather than simply bad, because it involved the use of 'showy technology'. Many adjectives have been applied to the American armed forces, but this is probably the first time 'pretentious' has numbered among them; and somehow it sticks.
BAD couldn't be quite so footloose without the cunning let-out clause inserted in the introduction. Fussell tells us why he didn't refrain from discussing bad things, in addition to BAD things: 'a thing that is palpably bad doesn't stay bad very long before someone praises it and thus elevates it to BAD.' But his hunt for fresh targets has less to do with logic than with a desire to widen the book's scope and blast away at the tangential grievances.
And that's what gives Bad it's best energies. It enables Fussell to distract us with a chapter on, for instance, bad engineering; the Hubble Space Telescope, which cost dollars 1.5 billion and didn't work, would have scraped in as BAD, if only because of the back-slapping which accompanied its furiously hyped conception and opening. But asbestos roofs in schools? Chemical waste containers which leak their contents into the soil? Generally, Fussell has an even, unexcitable tone and you never suspect him of being secretly in thrall to the bad taste he's lampooning (a regular pitfall for writing in this area). Here again, the Bad / BAD distinction helps. For Fussell, it's absolutely fine to stick a giant polystyrene doughnut on top of your roadside diner, because this is not bogus. But when Fussell writes about restaurants where the food comes draped and twisted to form a picture on your plate, you know there isn't a nerve in his body that's remotely titillated.
You may not feel that BAD's scattershot chapters really amount to cultural analysis. Unfortunately, you're forced to suspect that Fussell believes they do. At the end, this is the book's big problem. We're not sure Fussell isn't P J O'Rourke in disguise; he thinks he's Pope. 'The new Goddess of Dullness is in the saddle, attended by her outriders Greed, Ignorance and Publicity.'
But at least BAD isn't another one of those condescending cultural travelogues compiled by scanning the supermarket shelves and the cable TV stations. Fussell gets in much tighter than that. With him, BAD American language isn't just the legendary pompous euphemism and unnecessary elaboration, it's using 'home' when you mean 'house'; it's claiming to 'travel', when you're actually engaged in 'tourism'.
Of course, it may not be wise to think that all such details are somehow indicative of the greater social malaise. Fussell does run the risk of looking easily panicked; as when he writes about 'turndown'. Turndown is a relatively new American hotel phenomenon, in which a maid enters your room in the early evening, folds back your topsheet and places some confectionery on the pillow, just to make you feel at home (though how many people go in for this kind of thing at home is open to question).
For some reason, this really winds Fussell up, to the extent that you wonder whether he might not have had a bad turndown experience somewhere along the line - maybe got into bed without noticing the chocolate and woke in the morning with a melted Brazil nut in his hair. 'When Donald Trump brags that he is going to turn the Plaza Hotel in New York into 'the most luxurious hotel in the world,' we know that his idea of 'luxury' pivots on nugatory turndowns and unwanted candies at bedtime.' But turndown, by comparison with, say, pindown, is hardly symptomatic of a society in terminal decline.
Then again, you can't doubt that Fussell is right on the button when he tells us that the phony is all around us. Alas, you know because the phony is right here in this book. Take a look at the passage on china thimble collecting on page 148. It's really funny - almost as funny as the first time Fussell wrote it, for his book Class. And what about that gag concerning tacky spellings of the name 'Sean'? ('Shawn' and 'Shawun'.) That was mildly funnier when it appeared in Class, too. And then there's the passage explaining the relation between syllable-count and ostentation in BAD language; that's amusing, though perhaps it was more so when it was fresh, in Class . . .
Padding out a new money-spinner by re-processing material from your last best-seller - now, that really is both bad and BAD. In fact, that's the baddest.
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