By Kyle Smith
One of the assumptions of marketing is that nothing succeeds like success. You try to ride a big name or a hot trend. Think of all those books featuring men against the elements following in the wake of Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm. Think Madonna writing storybooks for children. Think Harry Potter: The Franchise.
ChickLit is the generic name given to the glut of books about young, urban women at work and play that came hard on the heels of Bridget Jones’s Diary. It isn’t Lives of Girls and Women. ChickLit rejects the whole idea of “coming of age.” It’s all about a return to innocence. It’s about women who are really girls. And girls, as the song says, just wanta have fun.
The male response didn’t take long to arrive. Soon there were lots of novels about young, urban men at work and play. Wags named it “DickLit”. Of course, it was all about trend-hopping. “I thought that women would like to see Bridget Jones on the other side,” Kyle Smith, the 32-year-old books and music editor of People magazine and author of Love Monkey has explained in an interview. “I wanted to show Bridget Jones in his Timberland shoes instead of his sling backs. So he has all the same concerns that she does, except from a different point of view.”
Note what Smith is conceding. This is a book about young men that women will want to read. Is that really necessary?
It is. You see, one of the problems with DickLit is that Dicks don’t read.
The hero of Love Monkey is Tom Farrell, a 32-year-old re-write editor for a New York City tabloid. Tom doesn’t read. He listens to pop music and watches Bugs Bunny re-runs. Basically he is just like a ChickLit heroine (“the same concerns . . . from a different point of view”). He doesn’t want to grow up. He confesses that he is really just a “thirteen-year-old with a credit card”: “I am not a man. I am a manboy.” He falls in love and sleeps around and generally tries to have a good time. But he also has a lot of self-image issues and suffers endless anxiety over his romantic relationships.
What’s great about Love Monkey is its speed. It’s hard to imagine a book with more wisecracks per line. A barrage of culturally hip gags and puns and one-liners is typical of this “brevity is the soul of wit, so make it fast!” school of writing, but Smith never lets up. It’s hard not to be impressed.
But the gags are Smith’s only way of creating an effect. The snappy patter never comes across as forced, but it lacks weight. When the book tries to change gears and get serious it becomes embarrassing. The spoiled, drunken misery of Tom’s friend Shooter is apparently meant to be an homage to The Sun Also Rises, but this is not the lost generation. It’s the wannabe lost generation. The “lamest generation.” And the self-conscious, self-observing self-pity grates.
Thankfully, Smith avoids trying to go deep. Even the events of September 11, 2001 do nothing to focus either the events of the plot (such as it is) or the lives of the characters. After watching TV for a couple of days they get bored with “that shit” and start doing the boyfriend-girlfriend thing again.
That’s one of the rare moments of honesty in a book that is far too driven by formulas and clichés. Tom has no identity outside of his Dick script (he even gets into an argument with his penis in the men’s room during a date). As with ChickLit, the result is a disingenuous mix of sex and whine. It’s necessary for Tom as Dick to make himself out to be a loser, but he really isn’t. He complains about money, but is a free spender with a good job and a career that is obviously on the way up. He worries about his looks, but has no trouble landing a host of intelligent, successful girlfriends. He’s a writer – he’s even writing “this book”! – but keeps having to protest that he doesn’t read.
In a youth culture, ChickLit and DickLit were probably inevitable developments. Kids rule! Who wouldn’t want to think and act like one?
Before this generation finds itself, it’s fiction is going to have to grow up.
Review first published April 17, 2004. The concept of a book about an “aliterate” young man (that is, someone who can read but chooses not to), who is, in fact, writing a book, is a little off-putting. On pg. 50 Tom has to write a book review of David McCullough’s John Adams. He hasn’t read “a word of it” but still writes the review. On pg. 92 he notes that he doesn’t read much. On pg. 113 he gets in a conversation with his girlfriend about “various books we’re reading. Well. Books she’s reading.” On pg. 170 he mentions a paperback novel he received as a present that he has “no intention of reading. I’ve already seen the movie.” On pg. 192 we see him “sitting by the pool in my swimsuit with a book I am not reading.” I don’t mind that this makes Tom less sympathetic, but I do object to it on grounds of credibility. Because Dicks don’t read, neither does Tom. But why then do Dicks write?