Sunday
Nov112012

I am a Magical Teenage Princess

By Luke Geddes


Chômu Press
July 2012
978-1907681165

Reviewed by Nick Kocz


 

Vintage pop culture fascinates Luke Geddes, whose fun, ingenious debut short story collection, I Am a Magical Teenage Princess, is built around encounters with The Flintstones, Elvis Presley, Scooby-Doo and the Mystery Gang, and Betty and Veronica of Archie Comics. While such might be the stuff for campy comedy, this collection excels at exploring the poignant plights of pop culture creations. What might these characters truly desire, and what becomes of these appropriated characters when their popularity fades? 

"Bongo the Space Ape," concerns the eponymous chimpanzee star of such 1950s B-movies as Space Ape, Space Ape in Las Vegas!!!, Space Ape Go Home!!!, and Beach Blanket Bongo. Bongo-mania has been dead for going on fifty years, yet Bongo and Jon, his human handler and co-star, are still "driving cross-country to any and every two-bit movie convention that'll book them… [driving from] one show to another and still barely making enough dough to pay for gas." 

 Of greater worry than money is Jon's health. He's been coughing up blood in "fits that are coming harder and more often." Though he tries to hide his illness from Bongo, the pair have bonded so tightly over the years that there are no secrets between them. 

Trying to rekindle memories of his early film success, Bongo recreates a dance routine that "the teenagers used to call the Bongo Shuffle." But the dance physically exhausts the aging chimp: "He lowers his head and looks at the cracks in his skin—his hands never used to look so old." Moments like this, moments when we see characters either framing their lives in pop culture contexts, or reacting against those influences, are what makes this collection so successful. 

In "Habit Patterns," a story framed as the voice-over to a 1950s high school health class hygiene film, Barbara is a loud, socially awkward, and acne prone teen. In other words, she's like just about everyone else at her high school. She pops her zits and is ever conscious of the "amoeba-shaped stain on [her] sweater" that she just can't hide. 

And Helen, the girl next door? We see her as if she's emerged from a Donna Reed film:

She soaks in a bath of milk, rose extract, and honey for two hours each evening. She dresses in silky garments whose opalescence is matched only by the gilded curl of her sunkissed blonde hair. She smiles politely when addressed, never forgets dates or appointments.

Preternaturally gracious, wise, and insanely popular, Helen is unreal. In real life, no one can be as perfect as Helen is drawn, yet the only reason we're convinced that such a perfect character might exist is that we've seen her type again and again in those Pollyannaish 1950s- and 1960s- era sitcoms that, even today, are still in syndication.

Constantly measured against Helen, Barbara is so envious that she breaks into the popular girl's bedroom and watches her sleep. For the first time, she sees Helen not as a perfect pop culture construct, but as a real girl: "She looks unexpectedly fragile, like baby deer… Her milky skin resembles egg shell… [A]t the base of her jaw line [is] a tiny, almost unnoticeable yet significant pink zit."

Often, Geddes's pop culture interest takes a prurient turn. In "Wonder Woman's Tampon," an unnamed narrator spots Wonder Woman in an airport:

She carried herself gingerly, like someone with a history of apologizing for broken furniture—imagine her gawky teen years: pimples rimming her tiara like jewels, the familiar golden W on a training bra, baby fat softening diamond-shaped cheekbones—but still, people got out of her way, her legs enormous, her steps peremptory.

Curiosity gets the better of the narrator. She follows Wonder Woman into the public restroom. "I sat there on the crinkly paper cover [of a toilet seat] and wondered if what she wore was a one-piece, if she had to strip naked, save for her bracelets and boots, just to go to the bathroom." 

Geddes's appropriated characters are not as squeaky clean as we had heretofore been led to believe. In "Betty and Veronica," one of the collection's stand-out stories, all sorts of sexual relationships exist within the Archie Comics gang. The title characters are bitter rivals and closet lovers, quick to claw at each other when they appear at the high school sock hop wearing identical dresses, and quick to claw at each other behind closed doors. "They kiss. Like always, it's different than with boys: wetter and softer, almost—it's silly to think it but Betty always does anyway—like marshmallows soaked in hot chocolate."

As I sped through this collection, I kept wondering what explains the staying power of these pop culture icons. Why are they still with us? Archie Andrews's first comic book appearance came in 1942. The premier Flintstones episode aired in 1960. Scooby-Doo, the relative newcomer of the bunch, is 43 years old, which any veterinarian can attest is an improbably long life span for a pooch whose diet consists of Scooby Snacks and those huge torpedo sandwiches that Shaggy is always scrounging up for him. So why hasn't Scooby keeled over by now? And why haven't we tired of him?

After all, as Geddes writes of the Bongo film franchise,

The movie's garbage, of course, the budget next to nothing, the acting stilted—especially Jon's—the script beyond ludicrous. None of the pictures were any good, not even in the warm, nostalgic glow of memory. Only the kids ever liked them.

So why did we like them?

Wisely, Geddes refuses to supply us with half-baked anthropological theories. Instead, he delivers enormously fun and well-written stories. In "Invasion," a girl listening to an Elvis Presley 45 dances "the way some people are said to spontaneously combust: fiercely, without warning, watusi fireballs whose sparks coalesced into something atomic and wild." We can imagine her spinning out, the wild thoughts on her mind. It's enough to make the Fred Flintstone in all of us shout, "Yabba Dabba Doo!"