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Dry White Whine : PERFECT WORLD by Ian Shoales (Penguin Books: $7.95; 203 pp.)

August 07, 1988|Lawrence Christon | Christon is a Times staff writer.

Ian Shoales is the nom de plume of satirist Merle Kessler, who has made a distinctive (and welcome) career in public radio and TV spots eloquently sneering at the seemingly endless forms of inanity that whip across the American media landscape like winds over an empty plain.

The pleasure of hearing Shoales' bandsaw whine is not only derived from the refreshing disdain of its reaction to, for example, the kind of solemn self-infatuation we witnessed in "The Big Chill" but also from asharp eye for cant and clutter and a fundamental moral sense that lends his satire a foundation of exacerbated truth.

In "Perfect World," the Shoales persona, which works so well in the guerrilla ambush of limited encounter, is overextended in the more demanding haul through book-length terrain. Roughly speaking, the plot deals with the dyspeptic Shoales' attempt to find his way in a hyped-up world that has limited use for a social critic with an attitude.

Most of the book is conducted through a dream that takes him from big business dealings (he becomes the besieged possessor of $9 billion--don't ask how) through lengthy chase episodes (he's in possession of a remote-control electronic device called Destiny Commander, a kind of modern hi-tech genie that can make anyone's dream a televised reality) to a place called Moscow, N.D., a spy-infested send-up of the real Moscow, where Shoales comes close to finding what he's always been in search of (though he might not say it in so many words): love, meaning and rock 'n' roll.

Kessler is a keen-minded, gifted observer, and "Perfect World" is filled with any number of funny, provocative asides and aphorisms. Thus of Lotteries: " Luck gets a bureaucracy."

The world that Shoales scrambles through (the book has the breathless paranoid pace of "Saturday Night Live's" opening montage, where SNL's performers are in urban flight from a close, invisible threat) is steeped in such excess that images collapse on themselves, and everyone is heightened as a figure of self-parody. Here the cliche is the reality.

But Kessler isn't in control of his conception, unlike William Burroughs or Thomas Pynchon, whose books are also filled with figures who embody imaginative but logical extremes. Kessler has a nose for trash. But rooting through it only reveals more trash--loutish billionaires, punks, officious prigs, assassins, a complete roster of charlatans on the take--and it's hard to tell where Kessler's bad writing is deliberate ("Her body moves without her thought, and she sings as she moves, and she thinks as she sings, and she moves as she writes") or when he's genuinely trying for an effect. In other words, almost all of it sounds hokey.

Even in the most imaginatively conceived worlds, or in this case, one extrapolated from a universe of show-biz and media values, there has to be a sense of proportion, a normative through-line. "Perfect World" has the hallucinatory energy of a bad dream, but it also has the real dream's ineffectual randomness. Kessler doesn't show much of a novelist's capability whenever "Perfect World" peeks out from behind Shoales' clever sneer.

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