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Bright Lights, Blog City

Emo historian Andy Greenwald returns with a novel, kind of.

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Miss Misery

Andy Greenwald

(Simon Spotlight Entertainment)

Kids today? They are way into the Internet. Instant messaging, blogs, and social networking sites like MySpace--all are balm for the eternal itch of teenage alienation, and they put high schoolers up there with role-playing geeks and sex addicts as the groups with the most fully realized online lives. Easy-to-use blogging sites like LiveJournal and Diaryland came into being around the time that emo surpassed punk and alt-rock as the sound track of choice for sensitive suburban teens. Confessional lyrics define emo as much as any musical qualities, and combined with blogging's open-diary aspects, it's inspired a generation of young adults to think bigger than just hearts on sleeves and broadcast their pain to as wide an audience as possible.

For the most part young bloggers have been content to tell their own stories, but Spin writer Andy Greenwald cast a historian's eye on them in 2003 with his first book, Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo. Now he's spun the same source material, and all those feelings, into his debut novel, a bildungsroman titled Miss Misery.

If you've ever felt the urge to wallow in the mundane minutiae of a stranger's life--if you've spent more than enough time scooting around other people's blogs, clicking links off of a friend of a friend's blog or hitting the "random blog" function over and over again--then the diarists introduced in Miss Misery's first chapter will seem familiar. There's the artsy, slutty girl prone to overpoeticizing everything around her; the Mormon emo teenager who sleeps in officially licensed record label pajamas; and the anxious grown-up wasting his life away reading blogs written by people he's never met.

The story unfolds around the last, David Gould, a writer living in Brooklyn, not far (unsurprisingly) from Greenwald's own turf. He's got a book deal and a long-term girlfriend, and both are stressing him out. The book, a quickie account of the LiveJournal trend, just isn't coming together, and Amy, the girlfriend, has decamped to the Netherlands to pursue her legal career and give her man some space. It's not exactly the stuff of tragedy. In fact, from the perspective of someone without a book deal or a cute lawyer girlfriend, David's got it pretty sweet. But it could serve as the framework for a modest tale of writer's block and somewhat privileged suffering. Which is exactly what Greenwald doesn't provide.

There's one blog in particular that David obsesses over, kept by Cath, the artsy/slutty girl. Her pseudonym, Miss Misery, pays tribute both to Elliott Smith's song of the same name and the effect that she, with her artsy/slutty ways, has on guys like David. Her arrival in New York coincides with Amy's departure, and it sets up an irregular love polygon that includes not only David, Amy, Cath, and the emo Mormon girl, but also (wait for it) David's evil twin.

Now, the twin isn't exactly evil--he's mostly just a dick--but his appearance signals Greenwald's removal of his story to a vastly self-indulgent and often hysterical place that he really shouldn't go. He seems to be striving for some sort of cartoonish magical realism along the lines of a Murakami novel--a possibility loudly hinted at by the characters' repeated references to their shared appreciation of Murakami novels. But while Murakami balances his sometimes forceful surrealism with a certain poetic determination, Greenwald's effort reads like the desperate move of, well--a young author with writer's block.

If one character torn by his dual obsessions with himself and his desire to have sex with girls is good, goes the logic, how could two characters like that not be great? Possibly because "evil" David, an allegedly archetypal metrosexual man-slut, lists among his bad-boy qualities the use of hair gel and the wearing of leather pants. The suspension of disbelief needed to accept the straight-faced introduction of anyone's doppelganger requires a basis in reality, and I just don't believe that a guy wearing leather pants can score with a hip, fashion-conscious 23-year-old chick in this day and age.

It doesn't take much to work out that Miss Misery is Greenwald's stab at a 21st-century Catcher in the Rye, or, more to the point, Bright Lights, Big City. In fact, the reference is right there on the back jacket, along with "the emo Fight Club" and "as seen on MTV U!" But the demographic in Greenwald's sights is a strange hybrid, one naive enough to accept a character's bathroom cocaine bumps as the apex of moral uncertainty, but hip enough to thrill to the pop references that litter the text. Greenwald is a music geek above anything else, and like LiveJournal heads with a "song" field right below "mood," no important moment passes without someone bringing up a not-too-obscure indie-rock song, or just putting on their iPod and thinking hard about something. Greenwald even gives Nick Hornby, the reigning emperor of self-obsessed music geek man-child lit, a run for his money in the longest description of putting together a mix CD I've ever read.

Greenwald doesn't succeed in selling the central theme of the book: the importance of letting go of an overextended adolescence and crossing over into adulthood. It's a universal experience, for sure, but one he obscures with a towering solipsistic worldview that makes Bright Lights, Big City seem expansive by comparison. But with a band reference, or a LiveJournal post, or a text message, or a lyric popping up every page or two, he may have written the first novel of the millennium to inspire a decent drinking game.

Andy Greenwald

When: Thu 1/19, 7:30 PM

Where: Barbara's Bookstore, 1100 Lake, Oak Park

Info: 708-848-9140

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