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Pagan Kennedy’s writing has a reputation for hipness. But you don’t have to dig too deep to see the influences of stodgy writers like John Updike and Raymond Carver in Kennedy’s Stripping and Other Stories and in her novel Spinsters. Kennedy learned the tricks of producing slick New Yorker fiction as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, and in studying well-known literary voices, she managed to lose her own. She makes this observation in the prologue to her autobiographical ‘Zine: “We knew how to invent imaginary people, how to give them jobs and lovers and worries, how to craft our work, make it realistic and powerful. But did we know how to invent ourselves?”
In 1988, frustrated by her lack of publishing prospects after grad school, Kennedy began putting out a photocopied magazine about her life in Allston, Mass. She eventually produced eight issues of this ‘zine, titled Pagan’s Head, over a six-year period. Compiled in ‘Zine, these issues serve as a memoir of the author’s life as a struggling writer that is by turns insightful and irritatingly self-conscious.
Pagan’s Head (which went through several name-changes during its run) plugs into the fringe culture that spawned the current ‘zine explosion; Kennedy acknowledges this by subtitling her compilation How I spent six years of my life in the underground and finally…found myself…I think. But instead of ranting about punk rock and politics, Kennedy rants against her writerly training. Though taught to avoid writing about herself, Kennedy dwells on minutiae from her hairstyle to her roommates’ quirks. She goes on for page after page about personal obsessions, like the cultural significance of The Partridge Family and her favorite Jeopardy categories. She criticizes ex-boyfriends, and takes readers along as she buys a car. The ‘zine’s look is no pampered product of a New York publishing house, either, but a collage of cheesy clip art, badly drawn cartoons, and shoddily reproduced copy.
There is no sense of restraint (or editing) in Pagan’s Head. This can make for tough reading, especially in a drawn-out diary of a cross-country trip Kennedy took at about the same time as the Gulf War. But there is a refreshing playfulness in the way Kennedy thumbs her nose at the literary establishment, as when she reprints her rejection slips. And thanks to ‘Zine’s introductions to each issue, the woman behind the sardonic “Pagan” persona proves more interesting than the persona itself. Kennedy puts each issue in context by detailing her personal life; she discusses her father’s death from lung cancer and her own painful ordeal with an ovarian cyst. These candid passages have an urgency that rivals the refinement of those big-name authors. There is more immediacy here than in Spinsters, a carefully crafted but undistinguished book about two sisters who hit the road after their father dies.
The irony is that Kennedy stopped producing her ‘zine to write the kind of conventional books she wanted to get away from in the first place. If only Kennedy could fuse the skills she learned at Johns Hopkins with the spontaneity of ‘Zine, she could create a unique voice in fiction.CP