Hiding in Plain Sight | Book Review | Chicago Reader

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Hiding in Plain Sight

Fatalist Dan Rhodes sneaks back onto the shelves under cover of chick-lit.


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The Little White Car

by Danuta de Rhodes

(Canongate U.S.) $21

Last year Pulp front man Jarvis Cocker adopted a persona named Darren Spooner, a frail divorcee's son who liked to take drugs and threaten people while dressed up as a moldering skeleton. Darren founded Relaxed Muscle, a two-man goth-industrial band that debuted with a surprise club appearance. A couple of EPs and an album called A Heavy Nite With Relaxed Muscle soon followed, but his cover was already blown as the pop-music peanut gallery congratulated itself for recognizing the world's sexiest geek under Darren's poorly applied black-and-green face paint.

While at first crack the album appears to be a mere parody of tough-guy synth rock, it gets catchier as it becomes a novelesque portrait of the swaggering Darren Spooner, whose character takes shape through his fantasies of winning the male-domination game. Cocker also swipes a bit from Hamlet. There's a cameo by Darren's absentee father and a play within a play--in the video for "Billy Jack" Darren imagines himself as a macho gunslinger who "teaches the eagle a lesson / with his Smith and Wesson!"--and throughout he seems about one fit of the shakes shy of making like Ophelia. For the most part the critics were indulgent. The online music zine Neumu.net, for example, clucked that the project "lets Cocker indulge his darker, dippier side without doing any direct harm to Pulp's legacy."

Writers, who are supposed to be serious artists, have traditionally used pseudonyms to thoroughly hide their identities when writing less ponderous fiction--Kingsley Amis's Bond-novel foray under the name Robert Markham, for example--or when, like George Sand, they weren't considered eligible to write seriously at all. But Dan Rhodes, a 32-year-old author and Smiths fan who says he gets more from good pop music than he does from most modern fiction, is driven by more vindictive demons. Rhodes has it in for the shamelessly insubstantial darlings of the British publishing world--and when he decided to pose as one, he went for an even flimsier makeover than Cocker's.

A few years ago Rhodes was enjoying fairly enviable notice for a young scribe thanks to two humorous but mostly melancholy short-story collections about heterosexual love gone wrong. Then he wrote a novel, Timoleon Vieta Come Home, in which an attractive, spoiled British youth, on the run from angry drug dealers, poses as a Bosnian refugee and hides out at a lonely old gay man's Italian villa, paying his rent with a blow job a week. This flat-out monstrous boy--drawn from the most maudlin, paranoid vaults of Rhodes's psyche--ends up killing his patron's beloved dog.

Rhodes spent five years polishing Timoleon Vieta, but when he finally finished, his previous publisher declined to pick it up. Though his short-story collections had garned critical praise they had sold "at a 'cult' level," he said in a 2003 interview with 3 AM Magazine, and failed to capture the fancy of the London book trade. My guess--considering the satire Rhodes went on to write--is that the trade folk were too busy hawking the work of chick-lit hacks like Sophie Kinsella and Jane Green in the market created by Bridget Jones's Diary.

Rhodes has never made a secret of his distaste for the grubby business of publishing and its tendency to cater to the lowest common denominator. Modern fiction is overrun with hobbyists, he said in another interview last year. "Publishers give established names pots of cash to write fiction. Being an established name is the worst qualification for writing decent fiction. . . . The best fiction has always been written by overemotional geeks, not by thrusting career monsters." The children of privilege who inspired "the Bosnian," a "morally and emotionally bankrupt upper-middle-class wanker," drive him particularly nuts. "I've had dealings with more of them than I care to remember," Rhodes told 3 AM. "Those cretins have far too much say in running things."

In 2001, while struggling to find a new publisher for Timoleon Vieta, Rhodes had, or staged, a well-publicized tantrum and announced that he was quitting writing. He wanted nothing more to do with his publishers, whom he referred to at one point as "shape-shifting giant lizards," and was moving to Vietnam to teach English. But then his fortunes changed. Canongate picked up Timoleon Vieta and the book was a hit. Critics couldn't praise it highly enough, sales were good (for Canongate, at least), and Rhodes made Granta's list of best young British novelists for that year. It would have been silly of him to not quiet down and capitalize.

Grudges die hard, though, and so do vows: since Timoleon Vieta, Rhodes has indeed refused to let his name be sullied by literary commerce. But, this past June, Canongate UK released a witty chick-lit buddy novel called The Little White Car, purportedly by a mysterious 24-year-old fashion-industry insider. This charmed creature grew up in Paris, Milan, and Rio and began writing fashion features at the age of 12. Her resume also includes a successful screenplay called Le Cochon d'Inde, a degree in modern and medieval literature, and stints as a shoe designer and a composer for the Jerusalem Ballet. Her French-suburban heroines are disgustingly autobiographical: the polymath genius Estelle and her best friend Veronique, a dopey, shallow photographer who accidentally kills Princess Diana while driving home drunk in her parents' car. The prodigy's name? Danuta de Rhodes.

Nobody was fooled. Besides the fact that Dan and Danuta share a publisher, the UK edition of Danuta's book was accompanied by gushing blurbs from nonexistent publications like "Toulouse Monde" and "L'Automatique Association Journal." (The U.S. edition was published September 9.) The cover mimics that of Timoleon Vieta, except the scribbly drawing on the front is of a car instead of a dog, and it's tricolor instead of grumpy brown.

Rhodes's lark, with the exception of Danuta's author bio, is all about the play within the play: Darren Spooner's own alter ego, Billy Jack, starred in just one song, but Danuta crouches behind a third-person narrator throughout the text.

Rhodes begins by making Danuta's clothing-obsessed heroines as revolting as possible. In the first chapter, Veronique sits drunk and stoned on the couch with her obnoxious, spoiled musician boyfriend, Jean-Pierre, mentally tearing him a new asshole because she hates his footwear. By the end of the chapter she's ditched him, roared away in her parents' Fiat, and made tabloid history. Enter Estelle, just out of rehab, to help her wash her hands and move on.

But as angry as Rhodes may be at Danuta's real-life models and as flatly awful as he made the Bosnian, something--be it the pseudonym or just experience--seems to have spurred him to try harder. He can't seem to help making his privileged little shits into nicely rounded characters. Veronique and Estelle display flashes of inner lives, and though Veronique remains a monster, she's mainly a monster of mindlessness--unlike the Bosnian, we can at least put a hand on her chest and feel a heartbeat. Whenever she realizes that she's done something wrong she's seized by regretful moments of lucidity. When, for example, she mistakenly thinks that a friend's father has been arrested for her crime, she's ready to turn herself in--after she changes into some comfortable clothes.

Halfway through the book Jean-Pierre comes back into the picture, having discovered that Veronique and Estelle hocked his stereo to try to get the little white car in question repaired. But he's not mad. After all, he did owe Veronique 6,000 francs when they broke up. He's so understanding, in fact, that he uses his conceptual-art skills to help Veronique chop the Fiat into baggie-size chunks so she can slowly dispose of the evidence. Then he lends her the windfall from a power ballad he ghostwrote so she can buy her parents a replacement.

He starts to behave better and bore her less. By the time his heartbroken weird uncle dies, the tenderness Jean-Pierre feels for the guy makes Veronique realize that he isn't just a dope-addled, unnecessary-sock-wearing louse. At this point much of Rhodes's commitment to parody has been ditched to let the story grow into a sweet, if still ironic, romantic comedy--the genre from which chick-lit devolved in the first place.

Though some critics liked this book, other onetime Rhodes supporters have pounced on it in disgust. "Is this novel somehow akin to the bouts of furious noise that certain bands tend to make when they are trying to alienate their 'pop' audience?" a reviewer at Bookmunch.com snarled. "If this is a book by Dan Rhodes, then it's shocking, awful, a contemptible waste of talent, time, money and effort." The response seems a bit overwrought: sure, great art rarely begins with a fancy for inoffensive, well-crafted silliness, but neither does it follow from a stern pledge to make, you know, great art.

Unfortunately, by the end of The Little White Car, Rhodes isn't content merely to write a smart, insightful, well-structured romantic comedy. Had he stayed true to the genre's structure he'd have wrapped things up with the crime successfully hidden and Veronique and Jean-Pierre back in each other's arms. Instead he drags the story out to every possible logical conclusion in a series of short but powerfully annoying codas. All of them are more or less predictable, and no character comes to a good end, but one coda in particular makes a mockery of the reader's willingness to suspend disbelief: a flat, brief narration of the inevitable final breakup of Veronique and Jean-Pierre.

Come on! The formally correct if unrealistic happy ending wasn't what intelligent readers would assume was the end of Veronique's story; it was just a good place to end what we saw of it. Morrissey himself let the freak in "November Spawned a Monster" exit the song in the clothes she chose for herself. He didn't follow her till they faded and started to fray and the back pocket of the skirt tore off and people saw her Winnie-the-Pooh underwear and threw rocks at her and she drank a whole gallon of wine and got a headache, and, and, and . . . I want to slap Dan, or Danuta, or whoever's handy and yell, "Bastard, you had such a well-done romantic comedy going under the cover of a brilliant parody! It was thought provoking while poppy! Why did you go and stuff this existential nonsense in, dickbrain? Who the fuck do you think you are--Darren Spooner?"

The dog's murder at the end of Timoleon Vieta works because it fits the arc of the story. It's also a surprise, however slight. The formulaic "where are they now?" bits that wrap up The Little White Car come off as a nod to intellectual fashion: happy endings are so last century. I suppose the Danutas of this world are nothing without fashion, and the move could be excused as more light shed on her character. But I think it's just Rhodes staying true to his own sulky fatalism.

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