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Janice Eidus’ latest collection of stories, The Celibacy Club, pays a queer kind of homage to various objects of affection. In “Barbie Goes to Group Therapy,” the title character (of Mattel fame) refuses to surrender her hard-earned self-adoration. The narrator of “Jimmy Dean: My Kind of Guy” discovers her favorite matinee idol, alive and lusty, at the artists’ colony where their illicit affair begins and ends. And while the heroine of “Elvis, Axl, and Me” is happy to romp with the aging King, her heart really belongs to Axl Rose, even if he is “very immature and very politically incorrect.” Like so many men and women in black, the author has an obvious fascination with camp.
Now, it is quite possible that some women do harbor erotic feelings for their exercise equipment, eros even unto love. Anything is possible. But everything possible is not necessarily compelling, and Eidus herself never adequately illuminates her characters’ eccentric affections. Often in her collection the premise seems to tell the whole story, sometimes in the first paragraph. Flannery O’Connor always insisted that good short stories defy brief summation. By contrast, Eidus’ stories do not merit much explication. “Ladies With Long Hair” tells of a group of woman, organized nationally, who refuse to cut their hair in protest of “the plague” striking down their gay hairdressers. “Aunt Lulu, the Condom Lady, Dispenses Advice” to her assorted correspondents with the refrain, “WEAR ONE, DON’T TEAR ONE,” regardless of the dilemma at hand. In the title story, the narrator joins the Celibacy Club, only to bed one of her fellow members after just five meetings. How ironic.
But Eidus’ irony takes only the bluntest forms. Perhaps the most damning indictment of her work is that she uses the phrases “politically incorrect” and “politically correct” as though they actually signified something. The politics of Celibacy are rather simple-minded. AIDS is a bad thing. The people who live along hard-hit Pelham Parkway are real and substantial, while the inhabitants of suburban Charlottesville are unimaginativethey live their lives on “Cruise Control,” as the protagonist of that story complains. (He grew up on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx.) “A Spy in the Land of the Ladies Who Lunch” realizes that although money has never brought those ladies happiness, they will still “hold onto [their] money, and…keep on whining…through life, always bitching, complaining about this and that, spending…and running to the surgeon’s knife, the latest spa, the latest diet, hoping to stay young forever.” The idealistic young spy (again, straight out of the Bronx) still wishes they would see the errors of their ways and “Redistribute the moola!”
Most of Eidus’ insights have been phrased first by popular musicians; that should not be taken as a compliment to the musicians. As the titles of Celibacy’s stories suggest, pop culture constitutes her raw material. Still, her interpretations of that material are largely uninspired. Take Elvis’ critique of his woman’s beloved Axl: “What a momma’s boy and wussey that skinny l’il wanna-be rock ‘n’ roller is.” The former “Teen Idol” in the eponymous story speaks for all child has-beens when he says, “We’d been robbedof our whole lives. Other people had identities. We had none. When Teddie-Boy was canceled, so was I.” Nevertheless, he refuses to join the support group for the “Overidentified But Not Over!”
Presumably, Eidus intends all these cheap reproductions of pop icons to offer some sort of critique of American culture. “Too much damned collective unconscious all around,” complains the narrator of “The Ping-Pong Vampire,” essentially an Anne Rice sendup. Few of Eidus’ characters have personal demons and fewer find personal salvation. Most are merely digits in the collective, usually at the mercy of Eidus’ poorly conceived society, which bears an unsettling resemblance to a People magazine pastiche. “Health” finds the author at her most ruminative and expository: “Everyone knows (your doctor, your former Nautilus trainer, your psychotherapist and you, yourself) that you will never be good enough, smart enough, thin enough, rich enough, politically correct enough, mentally or physically healthy enough. And you’ll never have enough income or good enough health insurance to help you get better.”
The weakest piece in Celibacy is indubitably “Pandora’s Box.” (Oddly, it won the prestigious O. Henry Award, but this only proves there’s no accounting for taste.) In this wretched and interminable tale, Pandora falls victim to every hardship exploited by late-night talk shows: Her mother is institutionalized, her father and brothers molest her, her alcoholic brother commits suicide, and her one romantic interest, a porn actor, abandons her in her hour of need. So Pandora continues as a near-destitute “worker in the phone sex industry,” utterly despondent, having abandoned even the hope of hope.
Eidus’ dark vision is far from visionary. Her work is sophomoric complaint-prose so devoid of wit it would tax the patience of the ‘zine readers who seem to comprise its target audience. Eidus’ penchant for campfor Barbie, Axl Rose, and vampires in sunglassesmakes her work feel derivative rather than contemporary. In “The Murder of Juanita Appel,” perhaps the most engaging story in the collection, the title character, a novelist herself, maintains that writers “can tell it as it should be. Or as it could be. Or as it would be if one thingone particle of dust, one atom, one alpha rayjust one tiny thing in the universe suddenly shifted.” But Eidus does not heed her advice. Instead, she appropriates mass-merchandised American culture for the greater glory of gimmickry. Sontag writes that “the ultimate camp statement” is, “It’s good because it’s awful.” While the awful may hold a mysterious appeal for some readers, more might justifiably resent itin all its stylized disguises.CP