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A Massive Swelling: Celebrity

Re-examined as a Grotesque Crippling Disease and Other

The front cover of Cintra Wilson’s slim book of satirical essays features a starry-eyed inflatable sex doll and a white, oblong box, mimicking the surgeon general’s cigarette-pack warnings, enclosing the subtitle “Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations.” On the back, there’s a glamour shot of Wilson sporting a greenish hairdo that levitates into a nuclear cloud, along with breathless encomiums by Greil Marcus, Penn

Jillette, and Francis Ford Coppola. This weird dust-jacket disconnect is one of several indications that Wilson suffers from same the pathology that A Massive Swelling anatomizes.

Wilson prefaces the book with a brace of quotations that define the antipodes of her prose style. She begins with some elegant lines from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—”Success went fizzily to Bernard’s head, and in the process completely reconciled him (as any good intoxicant should do) to a world which, up to then, he had found very unsatisfactory…”—and then juxtaposes a boozily obscene rant from Charles Bukowski’s Hollywood—”Of course, what made the whole thing smell was that many of the rich and famous were dumb cunts and bastards.” And Wilson shuttles between the drawing room and the lavatory in her own writing, forging a zippy mongrel tone that

sustains interest despite the shallowness of her content.

In columns for Salon, the San Francisco Examiner, and an assortment of national magazines, Wilson has evolved a powerhouse style that she unleashes here to skewer the absurdity of contemporary celebrity culture and the enviousness that it engenders.

The good old way of getting famous was to be very good at something artistic, and have everybody fall in love with you for it. That really doesn’t work now, because, as many critics have pointed out, nobody is very interested in art for its own sake anymore; now one only does “art” as a necessary part of the equation, the means to the end of getting famous, so one can get plastic surgery and go to parties in order to lick and be licked upon by other famous people like puppies in a basket.

Wilson’s professed purpose in writing A Massive Swelling is to lance the boil of idolatry as manifested in pop music, beauty pageants, movies, sports, theater, and other mass media preoccupations:

I attack the maddening blizzard of tinsel scattered in the icons’ wake; the tidal waves of false awe glaring off their shiny suits. I swipe at the lurid neon head of the amplified celebrity wizard and not the frail, dumpy little nebbish behind the big screen of fire, because we’re all delicate and pitiable inside. I believe that deep down, everyone is fundamentally an OK Joe deserving of your civility and compassion, even the ones I really hate, like Richard Dreyfuss.

Tapping into a splenetic rhetorical tradition extending from Shakespeare, Swift, and Twain to Sandra Bernhard, Joe Queenan, Dennis Miller, and the adjective-driven house style of the defunct Spy magazine, Wilson’s periodic riffs of rhythmic invective are irresistibly quotable.

On adolescent females:

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Preteen girls want two things: a crazed amount of unwarranted, worshipful attention, and something ridiculously exciting and magical to happen to them suddenly, which would enable them to turn sneering and tall towards their ignorant parents and various preteen enemies and have them all shudder with the recognition that they were critically, mortally wrong in underestimating the preteen girl, and that they will now Pay.

On prepubescent pop bands:

As singers proceed to get younger and more naked, child versions of lingerie bands like Vanity 6 are sure to ensue: undulating eleven-year-old boys and girls wearing Cuban-heeled fetish nylons and tiny athletic-support cups will be filling an arena near you, running microphones suggestively over their undeveloped chests, grabbing their unfinished nether parts, flipping their hair, pouting, feigning sadomasochism with the mike stand.

On Celine Dion:

The stretched-out hair, the terrible bones under the angora, the black-buttered eyelids. The insane plucking and starving and discipline-greedy self-abnegation that she represents. I think most people would rather be processed through the digestive tract of an anaconda than be Celine Dion for a day, once they realized what a brutally unpleasant wasteland her interior universe needed to be in order to host such a deadly amount of the Fame virus.

On Los Angeles:

If major cities had human personalities, L.A. would be either an entertainment management executive or a defense attorney, in a red plastic Mercedes, driving twenty miles an hour on the 10 Santa Monica, getting a hand job from a seventeen-year-old prostitute while lying to his wife on the cell phone.

Delving beneath Wilson’s scintillating prose in search of the cultural revelations promised in her book’s subtitle, however, proves to be a fruitless quest. In the mid-’60s, critic Pauline Kael titled an essay about Richard Lester’s films “It’s a Great Technique But What Can You Do With It?” The same question crossed my mind while I was reading A Massive Swelling. The subjects that she’s chosen to lacerate—Michael Jackson, cosmetic surgery, Las Vegas, Broadway musical revivals, the Academy Awards ceremony—have already been savaged by pen-pushers with a fraction of her intelligence and wit. After the first few chapters, the sense of overkill becomes queasily oppressive—it’s rather like watching a bulldozer mow down a row of sitting ducks.

Wilson claims that her “feverishly lambasting criticism of our moronic culture today” is intended as “a method of helping the world instead of hindering it further.” Occasionally, the outlines of this messianic goal can be dimly perceived through the hurricane of derision, as in her observation that the nonfamous, media-stupored public would be more excited by seeing Joey Buttafuoco, John Wayne Bobbitt, or Monica Lewinsky than “someone really interesting, like Noam Chomsky or Yo-Yo Ma.” And in the book’s closing pages, she finally rises above the cultural detritus that obsesses her for a rousing, if disingenuous, stump speech:

We must learn to be more impressed by the dignified, esoteric details in other, boring and thoughtful walks of life. We must stop believing that famous people are sexier and better and more beautiful and interesting than other people. They’re not. They’re just like other human beings, only advertised, massively, into major leading brands, like dog food or shaving cream.

Stop pathetically believing that you deserve Fame or Fame deserves you. It’s yucky, and it’s only making you miserable, so stop.

One leaves A Massive Swelling with the unfulfilled feeling that follows a meal of junk food or a bout of mechanical sex. Why has Wilson dumped her considerable arsenal of rhetorical missiles on subjects that are already moribund? If she really wanted to help the world, why didn’t she focus her energies on someone really interesting, like Chomsky or Ma? Could it be because she knows that writing about politically active linguists and classical cellists has never made anybody Famous? CP