The Serial, by Cyra McFadden
by Cyra McFadden.
Illustrations by Tom Cervenak. Knopf. III pp. $4.95.
If William Thackeray were living in the age of Norman Lear, Vanity Fair might have been written along the lines of Cyra McFadden’s The Serial. Not that The Serial is an updated novel of manners; we have strayed too far from the tradition in which such a term could be usefully invoked. In fact, The Serial is not precisely a novel at all, but an energetically sustained series of fictional episodes with frequent climaxes and reversals that endow it with the breathless, stay-tuned quality of soap opera (the book actually began as a weekly newspaper column). Although it purports, as its subtitle ingenuously says, to be about “A year in the life of Marin County,” The Serial’s true subject is the contemporary mutation of manners as it is manifested in the lives of a group of Southern Californians whose tastes in everything from cheese to Senators are nurtured—if not dictated—by the high priests of chic at New York and the more recent New West magazines, and whose hapless pursuit of gratification has been wryly documented in the earlier films of Paul Mazursky.
The denizens of Marin County are no longer brutalized by anything remotely resembling the 19th-century social ordinances documented by Thackeray: “She had definitely decided . . . to take a lover. Now the question was whose.” They bend rather under the dual yoke of narcissism and consumerism. They are overwhelmed by the panoply of initials that signify competing programs of self-actualization—TM and TA and est and, when all else fails, Traegering (“psychophysiological clearing through integrative structural balacing”)—and tyrannized by brand-name possessions, from Cuisinart to Adidas.
The Serial is a comic transfiguration of a peculiarly modern and well-heeled suffering, the anxiety of status. Cyra McFadden sets out to penetrate the heart of this sun-soaked malaise through the lens of one typical Mill Valley nuclear family, the Holroyds, whom we meet at the very moment of their detonation. Harvey Holroyd has been acting strangely, and appears to be ready to rebel against the life he and his wife Kate have laboriously made for themselves. Kate, who is enlightened, knows that “value judgments” are “a form of human error” to be “equated with child-beating” and is at first inclined to a generously astrological assessment of her husband’s behavior: “. . . while some of his aberrations were typical Scorpio and therefore not his fault, she was beginning to suspect he had something weird she didn’t know about on the cusp.” Then on the way to the vet with Kat Vonnegut, Jr., Kate realizes that “she ought to put her own needs right up front and then get behind them.” Kate decides to look up Leonard, “a psychologist specializing in the dysfunctional socialization of rich children,” and one of the few men of her acquaintance not “committed to an LTR [living-together relationship].” Unfortunately, Leonard proves to be intensely committed to the capitalist system; when Kate tells him “I need you,” Leonard offers her a weekend at his place in Bolinas, payable in cash or by “all your major credit cards.”
And so turns the planet of Consciousness III, suburban-style. Kate slinks back to cook her nuclear family a gourmet dinner “to expiate her guilt,” only to discover that Harvey is away seducing his secretary. Next, Harvey moves out with Marlene, an eighteen-year-old check-out girl from the Safeway supermarket and part-time ceramics student at the College of Marin. Young Joan Holroyd joins the Moonies. Harvey moves back, but Kate moves out, into a commune that advertises for “a mature, mellow female vegetarian.” Before the year is through, Harvey has a nervous breakdown and “does” Valium (Kate reassuring him that “mental illness isn’t a stigma anymore . . . just nature’s way of telling you you’ve freaked”); Kate and Marlene participate in a co-ed consciousness group; Kate “gets it on” with an Argentinian poodle-clipper and, when that fails to work out, finds solace in being massaged by a muscular fellow-vegetarian, while her friend Carol comes out of the closet with a “Synanon crew cut”; and Joan “flashes” on her vocation as a dental hygienist (“She’s always had a thing about teeth,” Kate explains, “. . . and she’s got this terrific digital dexterity”). Despite everything, though, The Serial ends on a note of “growth and renewal,” with the remarriage of Harvey and Kate in “a Celebration of Open Commitment and Feeling Exchange.”
The Serial is a very funny book. It reads like a series of “takes” that have been skillfully spliced together, to an effect both elliptical and frenzied. Cyra McFadden has almost perfect pitch, which has enabled her to do something completely new with the kind of lingo (“proletarian-chic overalls,” “the whole institutionalized gestalt”) that publications from Harper’s Bazaar to the Village Voice are paid to take seriously. She has actually managed to make jargon—“life in a technocracy interfered with interpersonal relationships”—sound epigrammatic.
Although one clearly does not embark on this venture for its character development—all the Bobs, Carols, Teds, and Alices are basically interchangeable—Mrs. McFadden has nevertheless succeeded in spinning a real and compelling tale from the meager stuff of one-liners. Her touch falters only when she becomes merely sarcastic; for the most part, the trenchancy of her portrayals rests on the genuine affection she seems to feel for the objects of her satire. Mrs. McFadden burrows in among Marin County’s dwellers like a friskier Margaret Mead (and one without any theoretical ax to grind) and makes them—a lost tribe in their jungle of “paranoid Boston ferns”—the more endearing for all their appalling and ever more exotic efforts to appear to be found.
The Serial has been somewhat coyly packaged—perhaps with an eye toward the eroded attention span of habitual television-watchers, jaded types like Kate Holroyd’s friend Angela Stein who “was so non-physical she wouldn’t even read hard-bound books.” The book is covered in colorful plastic-coated cardboard and encased in a spiral binding: there are large-print chapter headings in boxes that take up a third of the page (e.g., “Kate wonders what it all means”). Further diversion is provided by Tom Cervenak’s wonderful and spacious illustrations, which have a slyly self-parodying edge much like Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop renditions of the tearful heroines of True Confessions comic-strips. In fact, the appearance of The Serial invites the thought that the book is directed at the very audience Mrs. McFadden is parodying—i.e., at the kind of media-bred person who is hip to the news “that the written word was on its way out.” One begins to wonder after a while who is laughing (or wincing) at whom and about what.
This raises another question, again having to do with Mrs. Mc-Fadden’s droll tone. Unlike Tom Wolfe, who has bitten into much the same upper-middle-class material with fanged teeth, Mrs. McFadden has dulled her bite so as not to draw blood: she seems to have half a mind to protect the very society she has undertaken to expose. Perhaps this helps account for her conspicuous avoidance of areas of life—specifically, the political—where, nowadays, really violent passions become engaged. People enslaved to stylishness as the Holroyds and their neighbors are would undoubtedly pay at least lip-service to “progressive” causes, but we hear nothing of this; a faked social conscience is apparently less easily—or less amusingly—caricatured than other contemporary simulations.
Finally, of all Marin County’s dirty secrets, the dirtiest is the stench of money that pervades its already heavily polluted moral climate. The tacit proposition of the world Mrs. McFadden satirizes is that everyone has gobs and gobs of it, and what they don’t have, they spend anyway. In Marin County everything can be bought, including ideas. The Serial bears funny but nonetheless true witness to the appropriation by blue-jeaned burghers of the leftover decaying values of the counterculture; its characters’ capacity for squandering their wealth on the gadgetry of self-fulfillment is inversely matched by the impoverishment of their prospects for any human connection, to a degree that, if it is to be taken seriously for a moment, is truly terrifying for what it has to say about the spiritual condition of the advanced middle class.
But to ponder the graver implications of so intentionally fluffy a delectation as Cyra McFadden’s is like letting the helium out of a balloon only to refill it with lead. The Serial, as one of its characters remarks in another connection, may look like “a hip version of a Breughel print,” but as a literary achievement it is a bona-fide original.