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Picks and Pans Review: Spy Notes

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by the editors of Spy magazine

This book has satire written all over it. As in “A Satire,” “A Satire,” “A Satire,”…which is just as well, since at times its summaries of “hip urban novels of the 1980s”—Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York, Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, Kristin McCloy’s Velocity, et al.—are so straight as to seem almost serious.

(Cliffs Notes, which publishes the series this book satirizes, has not seen any humor in the situation and sued to block publication of Spy Notes; a federal judge upheld the suit, but Spy won on appeal.)

“Almost serious” because it’s part of this book’s humor that the accumulated plot details become funny, so repetitious are their themes—most of which center on wealthy young people having sex and drug experiences after their mothers die. The summary of part of Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction is typical: “Paul sits with three homosexual fellows who have been taking the drug crystal Methedrine all night. Lauren has breakfast with friends, who are discussing Sara’s pregnancy and imminent abortion. Lauren remembers she too has had sex with Tim, the person who made Sara pregnant. Steve, with whom Lauren had sex the night before, comes to talk to her, and she tries to ignore him. She takes a bath, smokes some marijuana and thinks about Victor.”

The Commentary sections are more overtly malicious. Discussing a part of Slaves of New York, for instance, the book says: “Marley suffers from delusions of grandeur, a psychological phenomenon in which a person believes that they are more powerful or more talented than they actually are. The uncanny accuracy with which Janowitz depicts this state of mind shows that her knowledge of the condition goes far beyond that of a mere observer.” A list of study questions asks whether the dead-mother plot device appears in 11 of the 15 novels covered because “(a) in the 1980s most young people’s mothers died before the young people turned 25? (b) most of the authors are still at the age when they hate their parents? (c) each author was convinced that his or her own adolescence was much more traumatic than everyone else’s, and a fictional dead mother is a convenient gambit to justify misbehavior and whininess?”

Some books mentioned—Susan Minot’s Monkeys and Nancy Lemann’s Lives of the Saints, say—don’t belong in this kind of company. And why did Paul Simms, who wrote the book, hide behind the tiny print in which the credits appear? Maybe he was staying within the corporate dimensions of the title page, or maybe he just didn’t want to be pelted with bread-sticks the next time he tries to get a table at Nell’s or be stuck in right field at the next chic softball game in the Hamptons. (Dolphin/Doubleday, $7.95)