The desire to capture the intersections and overlaps of love and consumer capitalism isn't new—after all, Fitzgerald packed The Great Gatsby's doomed romance with God-like billboards, lethal cars, and semi-famous lady golfers nearly a century ago. But in the last fifty-odd years, love, consumer goods, and entertainment have become even more inseparable, making love heavily mediated and harder than ever to locate, let alone describe. But good literature can still shed light on the naked heart beating beneath pop culture's skin. The following writers have done just that, deconstructing and illuminating the intersections between information overload and twenty-first century romance.
Crash spends its two hundred-plus pages treating two post-war motifs—the open road and the movie industry—as cutting-edge pornography. The book ostensibly follows Vaughan, a former "TV scientist" planning a kamikaze car crash on Elizabeth Taylor's limo, but the real tensions play out around director James Ballard and his wife Catherine. After an accident "shakes loose" their fetishistic desires, the couple begins to seek out sex in totaled cars—and assorted lovers whose bodies have been resculpted in crashes. By the book's end, the couple's explorations edge dangerously close to addiction. Half criticism of a freshly mediated world and half celebration of its deviance, Crash presents a violent, spectacular vision of sex and technology.
While free love felt like a "new principle" in Barthelme's first novel, 1967's bawdy and bold Snow White, 1986's Paradise proposes a gentle rebuttal: radical behavior, once it's been mainstreamed, can feel awfully cliché. The book examines the "objective" good luck of fifty-three-year-old Simon, an architect whose wife has abandoned him. After meeting three homeless twenty-something lingerie models in a bar and inviting them home, he begins a months-long ménage-a-quatre. As the girls wax savvy on Spinoza and Cyndi Lauper, Simon, tired and complacent, becomes "amazed by what he doesn't care about"—a category that includes the "hog heaven" male fantasy he's living in. Lampooning the cults of youth and mid-life crises, Paradise wryly asks readers to act their age at a time when experience is no guarantee of maturity.
Chris Kraus wasn't the only writer penning brainy, faux-memoirish "stalker fiction" in the late 90s—et tu, Camden Joy?—but 1997's I Love Dick may have been the mini-genre's wildest ride. A mishmash of philosophy and art criticism wrapped in an epistolary novel of "unrequited" love, Dick trails a female author on the cusp of forty who's crafting her own "lonely girl phenomenology": a "case study" of a feminist who loves men, even if they can't figure out how to love her back. Between glossing on Kierkegaard's concept of the third remove and Violent Femmes lyrics, Dick's central conceit involves a series of love letters Kraus and her husband write to theorist Dick Hebdige. As the activity's one-sidedness begins to degrade her marriage and self-worth, the author attempts to hijack its form and "solve heterosexuality" by deconstructing its power dynamics.
Plenty of books tackle America's post-9/11 breakdown, but Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely—a remarkable collage of prose poetry, television images, computer screens, and prescription drug labels—manages to truly pin down the era's moral uncertainty. Reading school shootings, terrorism, and antidepressant culture alongside a car crash that left an entire family dead, Rankine presents a country in shock, overwhelmed and suffering a serious case of PTSD. Descriptions of her sister, the car's driver, haunt the book's short meditations. Witty and woeful, Lonely tries to locate human affection in a traumatized 21st century.
Most readers consider liner note-spouting manboys the province of High Fidelity-era Nick Hornby; Chuck Klosterman even acknowledges as much in the last pages of 2005's Killing Yourself to Live. But while Hornby's Gen X parable expertly depicts the emotional inertia of pop obsession, Klosterman's memoir captures its messy reality. Though Live purports to be a facile road journal about rock star death sites, the book's real subject is the author himself: a thirty-something cultural critic whose lingua franca is trivia. "The only way I can intellectually organize the women I have loved," he writes, "is by thinking about the members of KISS." The resulting digressive flow can feel anti-narrative and a little indulgent, but Klosterman's inability to be smug keeps things compelling. If he doesn't quite beat his referential blues, Live at least provides a lucid outline of their cause.