The Barnes & Noble Review
We live in an age where consumers are deluged by advertisers and marketers with images that are meant to entertain, shock, titillate, and most of all, encourage us to spend. It's an age where unlikely recording artists lend their songs to hawk luxury cars and clothing lines, where we all tune in to see who will be kicked off the island next, where fashion magazines advise us on how we can look just as gaunt as the models on their pages. Of course, none of this is anything new, and we know it: we, as consumers are basically being controlled, and we've come to accept and expect it.
In his debut novel, The Savage Girl, short story author Alex Shakar plunges us even deeper into this ideology of consumerism with a cleverly written satire that takes a wicked look at the dark side of contemporary consumer culture. The title refers to a young woman who lives amid the rubble, shards of glass, and volcanic ash of Middle City, isolated from society. She becomes the target of a group of "trendspotters" -- advertising execs who comb the city looking for the new new thing, the "paradessence." ("Every product has this paradoxical essence. Two opposing desires that it can promise to satisfy simultaneously. The job of a marketer is to cultivate this schismatic core, this broken soul, at the center of every product.")
Shakar tells his story from the point of view of Ursula Van Urden, an artist who, upon learning of her sister Ivy's act of self-mutilation and subsequent breakdown, leaves everything behind to settle in Mid City. Ursula lies her way into a key position at Tomorrow Ltd., the office of her sister's former boyfriend, Prof. Lacouture. Ursula's primary objectives are to discover what led to Ivy's emotional collapse, who are the "desensitizers," and, ultimately, how she can save those she loves from
the imminent horrors that have been predicted and are beginning to unfold right before her eyes.
A smart indictment of a marketing culture in which people are willing -- even desperate -- to sacrifice anything and everything in order to be the first to come up with the next big discovery, The Savage Girl is a timely, disturbing, engaging read. (Tanya Chesterfield)
Shakar's deft, funny debut novel is a satirical examination of the forces that drive advertising and consumption. Ursula Van Urden is a burned-out art-school graduate drifting through her late twenties, disillusioned by the failure of her paintings to change the world. She moves to fictional Mid City, a metropolis that is equal parts San Francisco, New York and Pompeii, to care for her sister Ivy, a delusional schizophrenic and superstar model. With help from Ivy's estranged boyfriend, visionary marketer Chas Lacouture, Ursula finds work as a trend-spotter for Tomorrow Limited, a company interested in "finding the future" of style on the Mid City streets. Shakar paints an unflattering portrait of the world of marketing, with its absurd product pitches, insipid jargon and imagined "synergies," and he populates his book with an inspired cast of grotesques, the most likable of whom were normal people before they sold themselves to the industry.
Shakar's clever and provocative debut novel (following his short story collection, City in Love) is something of a genre-bender. Like certain SF tales, the story takes place in a futuristic present imperfect, where recognizable trends Internet voyeurism and ecotourism, for instance have morphed into their logical (or illogical) extremes, and even the setting, Middle City, is both familiar and fantastic. It's built on the slopes of a volcano, the most prestigious buildings situated on the volcano's rim; it even has a statue of God as well as of Manuel Noriega. Into this comic-book setting, full of vividly drawn, outsized characters, Shakar drops a perfectly normal heroine, Ursula Van Urden. Ursula, a would-be artist in her late 20s, has come to the city to look after her sister, Ivy, a model who very publicly tried to kill herself and has since been committed. She persuades Ivy's former boyfriend, Chas Lacouture, president and founder of Tomorrow Ltd., to hire her as a trend spotter, predicting fads so that savvy companies and advertising firms can exploit them. A homeless girl who hunts her own food and lives on the streets the savage girl becomes Ursula's first trend and the basis for a diet water (yes, diet water) marketing campaign. And Chas ensures that Ursula's schizophrenic sister becomes the product's spokesmodel. The plot then surges wildly ahead as deluded Ivy seeks boundless fame, Ursula seeks a decent life and Chas seeks his next fortune. What's best about this entertaining novel is the feast of ideas. Has too much irony been emitted into the earth's atmosphere? Is glamour a zero-sum game? Is there a paradoxical essence at the heart of every product? Who knows? But Shakar makesit fun to contemplate. National print and radio advertising; 6-city author tour. (Oct. 25) Forecast: The ultra-gloss anxieties of young urbanites are on fetching display in this clever debut, and city sales boosted by a six-city author tour and national print and radio advertising should be brisk. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-A dark novel of ideas that might be called "wickedly funny" if it didn't contain quite so much truth. The Savage Girl predicts a frighteningly empty future on the rise-one that is, literally, tomorrow, and is not unlike today. Ruled by advertising and in the hands of professional trend-spotters like protagonist Ursula, it is "The Dark Age: Lite," in which people flock to buy diet water and wear leather made to look like vinyl "fake leather." Ursula comes to MidCity to visit her recently institutionalized sister Ivy, a 21-year-old schizophrenic model who attempted suicide in public. She gets a job under Ivy's much-older boyfriend, Chas Lacouture, the head of a powerful trend-spotting firm, and spends her days in-line skating around town, taking notes on street fashion, and trying to "see the future." Transfixed by a homeless "savage girl" she spots wearing skins and hunting her own food, idealist Ursula envisions this look sparking a return to nature and purity and shows her sketches to Chas-only to watch him haul Ivy out of the hospital to become the spokesmodel for the savage look. Never mind that she speaks paranoid gibberish: "Schizophrenia is the Future!" Soon enough, to Ursula's horror, his prediction seems right on the money. So, incidentally, does Shakar's. One emerges from the novel feeling dragged through the murkiest depths of what it means to be human. The author's scalding observations will ring true with teens hip to the often-outrageous ways in which advertising molds us-and will provide the rudest, smartest awakening for those who are not.-Emily Lloyd, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Read an Excerpt
The savage girl kneels on the paving stones of Banister Park, stitching together strips of brown and gray pelt with elliptical motions of her bare arm.
The sleeves and sides of her olive-drab T-shirt are cut out, exposing her flanks and opposed semicircles of sunburned back, like the cauterized stumps of wings. A true redskin, more so than any Indian ever was, her skin more red than brown. It must have been pale once. And her Mohican is whitish blond, her eyes blue or possibly green.
Her pants are from some defunct Eastern European army, laden with pockets, cut off at the knees. Her shins are wrapped in bands of pelt, a short brown fur. Her feet are shod in moccasins.
There is a metal barb about the size of a crochet needle stuck through her earlobe, and a length of slender chain hangs from her scalp, affixed in four places to isolated lockets of hair.
Each time the girl bends forward to make a stitch, her tattered shirt drapes and reveals her breasts, full and pendulous, whereas the rest of her is lean and unyielding. Down the bench, the man with the greased hair and mustache and forty-ounce beer, and his friend, the man with the Afro and mustache and forty-ounce beer, watch the ebb and flow of her flesh with sleepy smiles, lulled by the savage girl's mysterious, eye-of-the-hurricane calm, while around her the rest of the park gyres and caterwauls with trick bikers, hat dancers, oil-can drummers, chinchillas, rats, drunks, kendo fighters, shadowboxers, soccer players, a couple of cardsharpers, and, of course, one trendspotter, Ursula Van Urden, who has been circling the savage girl allmorning, moving from bench to bench to get a better view, trying to work up the nerve to speak to her but unable to rid herself of the ridiculous idea that the girl simply won't understand, that she communicates only by means of whistles, clicks of the tongue, or tattoos stamped out on the cobblestones, and that even this rudimentary language she reserves solely for communing with the spirits that toss in the rising steam of hot-dog and pretzel carts. The Savage Girl. Copyright © by Alex Shakar. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.