‘Tacky’ finds joy in bad taste
Love letters to the worst culture we have to offer
By Rax King
193 pages. Vintage books. Paper, $15.95.
Chuck Klosterman, in his book “The Nineties”, claims that this was the last decade to really feel like a decade, with its own unchanging values, fashions and ideas. We seem to live ever since, he said, “in a period of perpetual now.”
I’m more or less Klosterman’s age cohort (I’m eight years older), and that comment seems valid to me. Yet young people, a rising tide of them, are here to replace us, and they can only feel the opposite.
For example, here’s Rax King, in his exuberant book “Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer,” to make the final years feel like the most vivid, concrete, and ecstatic time to burst into life. adolescence since the time of listening.
King’s book is a well-calibrated celebration of “bad” taste: Creed, frosted lip gloss, “The Jersey Shore,” the Cheesecake Factory, the movie “Josie and the Pussycats,” and (in the silkiest essay in this book) the Warm Vanilla Sugar Mist scent.
That King writes about these things while alluding to Sontag and Updike and Penelope and Odysseus without once seeming like she’s otherwise falling apart is part of her achievement.
She wears her literacy as if it were a nose stud. When a DJ calls Creed “Tallahassee’s testosterone rockers,” for example, King comments: “It’s absolutely euphonic, my version of cellar door.”
Rolling through hard-to-defend chunks of trashed culture isn’t a forward-thinking stance. “When we championed trash culture, we had no idea it would become the only culture,” Pauline Kael said long ago. If magazines banned nostalgic, self-effacing, vaguely ironic appreciations of Barry Manilow and Ashlee Simpson and mullet and professional wrestling and curly fries at Arby’s and so on, a million freelance writers would be bankrupted.
Nor is it new to slip memoirs, wonton-style, into cultural criticism, which King does. What feels new – what is always new, when you find it – is the shimmer and the misery and the joy and the accuracy in King’s writing. It opposes distance and irony; you end up taking her seriously because she’s so opposed to the plan to be taken seriously.
King writes about pop culture of how Martha Graham taught her dancers to move on stage: she leads with her crotch. She has, in her story, an incandescent libido, so powerful that she could light up a city’s electrical network.
A chapter of “Tacky” deals with “Sex and the City”, in particular the character of Samantha, from whom King learned to satisfy his appetites and appreciate that life was up for grabs: “I didn’t need a boyfriend just for sex. . Sex was all around me! Men are never the right men (one is named Viper), except they are. Like Samantha, King seems to have come out of his mind. a Christmas cookie.
“I was always meant to be consumable,” she writes. “I was never going to become the kind of person who commands respect. And that’s good. Some days it’s even better. I go through men’s lives like the taste of cherry kirsch syrup in my throat. That What would I do if I was something fleshy and substantial? Grow old with someone I met in high school, like I once believed? Miss it all? I’d rather miss the sun.
King knew pantyhose was for her as a child, and her mother used the term to stigmatize things she thought were awesome. “I wanted to get awesome myself,” she wrote, and “tacky was the answer.” She became “the kind of person who gestures a bit too wildly with a cigarette during a conversation on Puddle of Mudd”.
King draws a line between tacky and trashy. The latter is “closed and uninviting. It’s unpleasant. If stickiness is about becoming joyfully, trash has already become, and there is nothing joyful about what it has become. It’s bound to be, in the long run, unless you’re Dolly Parton, a tough barrier to ride.
“Tacky” was released last fall. I’m writing about it now because a) the women I’m closest to have traded heavily underlined copies for weeks, b) the Times hasn’t reviewed it, and c) I’m late to find out that it reads like sequential shots of Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey.
King has unlimited access to his mind at 14 or 15. Her “Ode to Warm Vanilla Sugar” is in the league, as are coming-of-age essays, along with Nora Ephron’s “A Few Words About Breasts.”
“What I do know is that you are the scent of a frightened maiden as she teeters over the precipice of changeKing writes. “You were a pheromone ideal for us because we didn’t yet know how to feel like ourselves.” The essay only gets better from there.
Like Katie Roiphe, King praises messy lives. Like Toni Morrison in “Song of Solomon,” she advises, “Do you have a life? Live! live it [expletive] life!” One of the epigrams in this book is by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. The other is by Nicole Polizzi, also known as Snooki: “Do all the sins you can, you know? sex with an old man and stealing a plant and getting arrested.
It could all get noisy. “In my opinion, every big, sticky mouth of a girl behaves strategically,” King writes. “For a girl, a scream is a powerful reclamation of space that can’t be claimed otherwise. Everyone wants to be next to a pretty young girl all the time unless she’s screaming.
The writing in “Tacky” is so appealing that, most of the time, there’s no other word for it than chic.