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'Savage' Satire Blurs Lines of Popular Culture

Alex Shakar's first novel parodies consumerism, from diet water to ad campaigns.

December 14, 2001|IRENE LACHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — For much of the '90s, writer Alex Shakar was a cloistered doctoral candidate in creative writing, looking down on the real world from his proverbial ivory tower. He regarded himself as an enlightened intellect above the consumer fray, well positioned to write a novel satirizing popular culture and consumer marketing, particularly the young trend spotters hired to find the Next Big Thing. That was until he became trend-spotter quarry himself.

Shakar was unmasked when a team of them happened to visit the coffee shop in his Chicago neighborhood where he was working on his book. "I thought, I'm not going to give them anything useful because I'm the least trendy person in the world, but I'll be able to milk them for information."

The researchers started out by asking predictable questions such as what stores did he shop in and what was his fanciest piece of clothing. Then they moved on to questions he wasn't expecting, such as what was his philosophy of life and what were his spiritual ideals.

"I was fascinated that they were asking me those questions, so I started getting carried away with myself talking with them about it. And then one of the women looks down and says, 'Those are nice shoes you've got on. What kind are those?' I said, 'Oh, they're Australian sheepherders' boots.'

"And they just stopped and looked at each other like, 'We got it.' And I felt so humiliated in that moment because I realized that they had located this product that I romanticized and that I made a part of my identity. I realized it had this image for me of being rustic and rural and rugged. So it helped me realize just how things were working on me on all kinds of unconscious levels as they work on us all."

Shakar plunged ahead with his first novel, a piercing examination of consumer culture. After 51/2 years of writing, his stiletto insights became "The Savage Girl," which was snapped up by HarperCollins. The book clearly stood out, says HarperCollins publisher Cathy Hemmings. "This whole notion of marketing and popular culture and what we're facing as we enter this new century, he nailed it." Several major critics agreed. The Washington Post compared him to Thomas Pynchon, and the New York Times' Janet Maslin concluded that Shakar writes with "a scathing intelligence that transcends the trendiness of any particular moment." The Los Angeles Times noted his "frighteningly smart take on an advertising-drenched society."

The book opens with Ursula Van Urden's arrival in Middle City, which is built into the side of a volcano. Ursula has come to take care of her schizophrenic sister, Ivy, a gaunt fashion model who has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Ursula seeks out Ivy's estranged boyfriend, the cynical Chas Lacouture with the "subzero smile," and finds herself lying her way into a job at his trend-spotting firm, Tomorrow Ltd. She falls for another trend spotter who believes products reflect the best in us, declaring beauty "the PR campaign of the human soul."

Ursula seizes on a homeless woman as the inspiration for a new marketing campaign she calls "the savage girl" look. Her plan backfires when Ivy is named the poster girl for savageness and stars on a 24-hour Web-cam site where she spends hours lighting cigarettes with the $20 bills viewers send her. Then things begin to spiral out of control.

Shakar looks more like a graduate student than a media darling who has earned six figures for his first novel. He has very pale skin and very dark hair, and he's dressed in dark, nondescript student wear, a plain wool coat thrown over a sweater and pants. He's sipping coffee in a park in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, near his childhood home, where he experienced his first strange brushes with popular culture.

Strange, because Shakar was in the unusual position of having an actor for a father--Martin Shakar, who is probably best known for playing John Travolta's brother the priest in the movie "Saturday Night Fever."

"I think I had a different view of pop culture and maybe the artificiality of it," he says, choosing his words carefully. "I also had a kind of love-hate relationship with it. When that movie came out in the '70s, I was in elementary school, and my dad was the local hero.

"But I also got to see how he had to struggle. Every so often I'd turn on the TV and see my dad getting strangled and being some insane killer. It's been very hard for him to be a serious artist and to be in this world of pop culture, where you're having to do these really cheesy or sometimes insulting roles."

Shakar set his sights on consumer culture after he happened across a book called "The Strategy of Desire" (Doubleday, 1960) by Ernest Dichter, who is known as the father of consumer motivation research. Dichter compared Soviet propaganda with American marketing, saying they appeared similar but were actually opposites.

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