Bright lights, British cities
Lucy O'Brien laps up a savvy study in conspicuous consumption
Saturday 29 June 1996
Why is it Generation X-ers always buy take-out pizzas? The first thing e-mail freak Betamax Boy does when he discovers a box full of old Beta tapes at a car boot sale is go home and order a pepperoni with extra anchovies, pineapple, onions and corn. This is before he slots in a video and discovers "'60s-time warp" conspiracy theorist Kenneth waxing lyrical to camera.
Betamax Boy is one of a cast of characters - media victims of the electronic age - who pepper late-twentysomething Toby Litt's debut, Adventures in Capitalism. He has been compared to Douglas Coupland, McInerney et al, but aside from Americanisms like "way cool", "schmuck" and "chow down", Bedfordshire-born Litt has less in common with his US counterparts than you'd expect. As with American rap, the British version doesn't translate well - references to the NFT and the British Library somehow don't sound as sexy as Coupland's sun and snakeskin in the California desert.
In this anthology of 18 scathing short stories, there are the obligatory jabs at consumer culture - "It Could Have Been Me And It Was", for instance, italicises all the purchases of an I-shop-therefore-I-am lottery winner, while "IYouHeSheItWeYouThey" skits the dumb and beautiful Hello!-type celebrity couple in a way that's savage but groaningly obvious. A story set in London's Japanese fast-food eaterie, Wagamama, details the lives of flippant media characters whom you may recognise but couldn't care less about, and "Cosmetic" delves into the psyche of an odious business tycoon who reconstructs his cheekbones. These tales are as dry as the arid culture they depict.
When Litt drops his self-conscious commentary on the late 20th-century MTV generation, however, he comes up with stories that resonate. With a fine ear for the absurd, he creates a host of unreliable narrators, from the unstable and ironic to the mad, obsessed and surreal. Some of them are just good ideas in search of a story, like the High Anglican loner who writes letters to Mr Exceedingly- Good-Cakes Kipling, or the Face reader who turns into a sunflower and is paraded like an Elephant Man freak show, or the Boots model girl who joins the SWP.
Far more effective are the quieter tales with a grim undertow. There's a rum, poignant, devastating humour to "Fluffy Pink Bunny Rabbit", for instance, in which an out-of-work actor dresses up to shake charity tins in Trafalgar Square. And "Polly" draws, in closely focused yet simple detail, the world of a young black nurse overly attached to horoscopes and an abandoned baby brought into the hospital ward. Even more compelling is "Launderama", a horror story about a true ghost in the machine. The narrator, a writer of technical manuals and erotic novels, becomes obsessed with a beautiful girl who keeps getting in and out of washing machines in the launderette opposite his house. Even though he has his own Zanussi, he takes a bag of clothes over one day in order to intercept her. By accident he walks right through her and, rather than a terrible chill passing through him, "inside her, where I for a brief second was, everything was hot and close and dense and churning" - just like a washing machine.
Litt then reserves his coup de grace for the final act - the wicked, revengeful "When I Met Michel Foucault". Though he is dealing with a post- modern icon, it's with none of the clever-clever edge that dominates so many of his stories. Here he literally gets under the French philosopher's skin, with a red-hot poker in an S&M club. It is a brilliant, charged, thoughtful piece of writing that goes deeper than all the supposed subversion of Coupland's alienated American universe. When he moves away from two- dimensional characters that merely echo the vacuity of our take-out culture, Litt forges a truly satirical comment on consumerism and capitalist gods.
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