Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl was published to great acclaim in the US last month. It follows the fortunes of an artist who moves to a fictionalised New York City – “Middle City” – where her model sister has suffered a very public nervous breakdown. Ursula gets a job as a “trendspotter”, combing the streets of Middle City in search of the Next Big Thing. Brilliantly original, philosophically incisive and a great read to boot, it’s the most impressive debut novel we’ve seen in years. So we caught up with Shakar by email to discuss his writing.
Your first book, City in Love, was a reworking of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Savage Girl draws heavily for its themes from Dante’s Purgatorio. What is it that attracts you to myth as a source in your writing?
In City in Love, I was exploring a sense that modern urban society is in many ways better grasped by the ancient vision of the Metamorphoses – a universe in constant flux, the always-changing-always-the-same quality of things – than it is by more modern teleologies. The latter demonize chaos, whereas Ovid’s mythological system embraces it and shows it to be a part of the greater order. Ovid’s universe is less safe, less reassuring, but also larger, freer, allowing for more possibilities, and perhaps more beauty as well.
Which can perhaps also be said for New York City, and for the purgatory-like Middle City of The Savage Girl…
Middle City is built, somewhat hellishly, on a semi-active volcano that reaches up, somewhat divinely, to touch the clouds. But unlike Dante’s orderly universe, the inhabitants of Middle City can never be certain of their footing, can never be certain whether they’re in heaven or hell or on the way to either. In that respect I wanted to convey a sense of the breakdown of that Christian mythology in modern-day consumer culture, a place in which “virtues” like abstinence and self-denial are now more or less viewed as being impediments to individualism and economic growth.
Like Dante in Purgatory, Ursula becomes one of the penitents of Middle City as well as providing the narrative point of view – there’s very much a sense of the artist struggling to engage with the world, even as he or she tries to stand apart from it and document it.
Ursula finds her way by coming to understand something about how the world works-to understand precisely how consumerism is affecting her and the people around her both for good and for ill – and by beginning to be able, as an artist, to transmit that understanding to others. She hopes that the installation she’s planning will transmit this understanding on an emotional, visceral level, and in so doing give people the courage to go on trying to understand and master all those other forces acting on them that at first seem too pervasive and too insidious ever to take on.
Does that reflect a belief on your part in the notion of the engaged artist?
I think it’s true that I take this as kind of a mission statement as an artist myself. Good art at its best can lift us up outside the ideologies we inhabit and give us a bird’s eye view of them, allowing us to see how they have shaped us, informed us and limited us. I’d argue that this is something only good art can do-political essays and sociological studies can do part of the job, but a work of art, by connecting with us aesthetically and emotionally, can really hit us where we live and show us on every level of consciousness what’s at stake in our own day-to-day engaging with the world around us. And by the way I don’t just think of “engagement” in a narrowly “political” sense-the systems which works of art illuminate, debunk, de- and reconstruct range from the political to the economic, social, spiritual, interpersonal, and so on. In the end, of course, they’re all intertwined. I think most writers today are, at least in some of these senses, trying to be engaged.
Of course engagement requires a belief in the possibility of improving the human condition, but one of the central themes of the book is the way modern ironic perspectives undermine that kind of faith.
I wrote The Savage Girl in part to explore our culture’s friction between irony and earnestness. Most all of us now are ironized to some degree. We rely on our ironic sensibility; it allows us to shrug off dogma, to be a largely tolerant society for the most part free of witch hunters and suicide bombers. But this freedom comes at a cost-the cost of faith, of deeply held convictions, passions, beliefs, of an unwavering sense of meaning and purpose in our lives; as an increasingly ironic culture we increasingly lack these things.
Which would bring us to “postirony”…
The trendspotters in The Savage Girl believe that the culture around them is supersaturated with irony, and that a new form of consciousness they term “postirony” is on the way, but the question of whether postirony is a good thing or a bad thing-whether it’s the next phase in the evolution of modern consciousness or a virulent new kind of Orwellian doublethink-is an issue that divides them. For Ursula, it increasingly seems like the latter, but toward the end (when she visits the “neo-Patahamateri” tribes people in the Amazon rainforest) she does see a glimmer of the former, the possibility of an “ironic religion,” on the horizon.
That sounds like a contradiction in terms…
The idea of an “ironic religion” was the holy grail of 19th century philosophers like Schlegel, who were trying to bridge the gap between Western civilization’s competing needs for intellectual freedom on the one hand and a morally principled society on the other. Whether or not our culture will be able to synthesize irony and earnestness in such a utopian way – and whether perhaps our consumerism, for all its faults, might be a stepping stone in that direction – is a question the novel poses and leaves open.
Some reviewers suggested the book lost some of its relevance after the 11 September attack on New York – and certainly one’s reading of the book is altered – but actually the attack throws into relief a lot of the book’s themes, doesn’t it?
After watching the calamity from our rooftop I went out and tried to be of use, trying to give blood, volunteer at hospitals and so forth. After a few hours of this, when it became evident that there wasn’t anything I could do, I went back home in time to see Mayor Giuliani tell us that what we could do to help out was to go out and shop. A couple of days later, we had the same message from President Bush, and a couple of days after that GM plastered the airwaves with a car ad appealing to Americans to do their patriotic duty and buy an Oldsmobile and “Keep America Rolling”. This is one of the central themes of The Savage Girl, our culture’s increasing conflation of citizenship and consumerism to the point where all our power, to whatever extent there is any, rests in the latter.
Our politicians are not exactly wrong in trying to get us to consume. In a very real way, consumption is power for us. The more we consume, the more our economy grows, the more we dominate the earth. But the paradox that many people I think are feeling in their bones is that consumption is also powerlessness. The more we consume, the more dependent and compromised we become, the more dictators we have to support for the sake of oil and ecosystems we have to demolish for the sake of food. I was interested in getting at how this paradox of consumerism affects us at a personal, psychological level.
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