Friday 17 August 2018

Smart cultural criticism with an audacious side of celebrity spice

Non fiction: All The Lives I Want, Alana Massey, Grand Central Publishing, €10.99

All the Lives I Want
All the Lives I Want

Sophie White

'Courtney Love is a witch" is the bold thrust of the seventh chapter in All The Lives I Want by essayist Alana Massey. 'An Alternative Account Of The Life And Crimes Of Courtney Love' is a love letter to the witch Love and a meditation on our society's hypocritical attitude to talented men who rebel and their less palatable female counterparts. They're all here: Plath (who provides the book's title); Princess Di; Fiona Apple - a cast of women whose narratives Massey dissects and deftly remoulds into thoughtful and witty allegories of the female experience.

Massey was producing stark personal essays for Buzzfeed, among others, before expanding into cultural criticism. She is a brilliant collision of internet babe and academic - her master's from Yale Divinity School appears to jar with her stint as a stripper, both afford Massey a unique insight on how our culture skews the narrative of its famous women and the effect this has on the girls who consume it.

Massey is as passionately obsessed with pop as she is with feminism and the result is a spirited academic treatment of our favourite guilty pleasure: celeb gossip.

She uses Princess Di to probe the Crazy Ex Girlfriend trope. Classism is explored with empathy in a chapter starring Anna Nicole Smith which goes beyond the usual narratives of Smith as gold-digger or worse, simply a train wreck.

Massey collects the women we have grown up watching, and re-examines their experiences, giving weight to events that have often previously been the butt of jokes. She also cleverly unpacks our relationship with these women, or rather, with our ideas of them.

"One lives a messy but somehow more authentic life... The other appears to have a life so sufficiently figured out as to be... mundane," writes Massey in her opening essay, an account of what it's like to be a "Winona woman" in a "Gwyneth world".

It's very funny, but the wider realisation that we, and not a misogynistic media, have reduced Ryder and Paltrow to two dimensional avatars is unsettling.

A stand out chapter focuses on the cult-like male devotion to the film Lost In Translation and the strange void that is its female protagonist Charlotte played by Scarlett Johansson. Charlotte is our "peripheral woman" who finds "an important man" and a flirtation evolves.

"What I resent," says Massey, "is how her beauty functioned... not as a perk to a memorable and desirable character but as the defining feature." The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides is given a similarly rigorous interrogation.

Small details of Massey's biography are scattered throughout, casting the author, like ourselves, as spectator to these famous lives. In the final essay, she deftly flips this structure and employs the narration of Joan Didion by way of excerpts from her novel Play It As It Lays to relate a more personal narrative of destructive love from Massey's own life.

To have the original "cool girl" Didion play a bit part in an essay of cultural criticism purporting to be about her is playful and audacious, words that perfectly sum up the book as a whole.

All The Lives I Want examines the power of the narratives we impose on women and demands we give consideration to the complex female experience rather than dismissing it as an embarrassing deluge of TMI.

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