READING ALONE TOGETHER: PART FIVE

June 24, 2014

This time next week, GUTS will post the fifth instalment of Reading Alone Together, a short story reading series led by Esmé Hogeveen, an English student living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

by Esmé Hogeveen

This month’s story, “Exfoliation” by Marni Jackson, is part of Hazlitt’s Household Gods series, “a collection of stories about our relationship to famous people and how celebrities infiltrate our private lives.”

The first story I read from Household Gods was Jackson’s “Joni Mitchell’s Matala Diaries,” which comprise fictional diary entries by the musician and artist from her prolific Blue period in 1971. Though I liked the idea of experimenting with historical fiction, I had reservations about Jackson’s project. Logically, I understood that writing from the perspective of a famous person happens in many forms of creative writing, but I wondered whether writing from Mitchell’s poetic viewpoint was taking things too far.

Were my qualms legitimate, however? As I pondered why my attachment to Mitchell made me feel entitled, even obliged, to distrust Jackson’s piece, I began to appreciate the series’ title (Household Gods) and to think about how celebrities get deified by our secular culture. Whether or not you “care” about them, celebrities (athletes, artists, politicians, reality show contestants, etc) are a force affecting not only our cultural and political beliefs, but also our consumer and lifestyle habits. Celebrity culture is everywhere, and it is inevitable that us regular folks encounter the views they espouse or represent.

When choosing a story for this month’s Reading Alone Together, I asked Madeline Kingston if she would be interested in discussing another story from the series, one which scrutinizes the relationship between mere mortals and celebrities more directly. In “Exfoliation,” the narrator is an older woman who books a facial before her ex-husband’s wedding. The catch? The woman giving the facial is Gwyneth Paltrow. The other catch: the narrator never recognizes the facialist as Paltrow. The two women speak, therefore, as relative equals.

The tone of “Exfoliation” is dreamy and it is unclear to what extent the characters form a legitimate bond. The narrator’s failure to recognize Paltrow enables the reader to remain focused on the narrator’s problems, whilst also underscoring the way in which we expect, and even demand, certain representations of celebrities. If I was uncomfortable with Jackson imagining Mitchell’s first-person perspective, there is something stranger about the perceived normalness of Gwyneth Paltrow’s unchallenged role in “Exfoliation.”

Some questions to think about this week:

  • To what extent do we want to be understood by people we only have brief encounters with? (Facialists, baristas, homeless people, doctors, instructors—people we may only briefly encounter, but whom we nonetheless make an impression on and vice-versa.)
  • Is it possible to have a meaningful, yet entirely one-sided, fan-to-star relationship?
  • Does sharing personal details with a stranger reflect trust and/or self-involvement?
  • Do celebrities become public barometers for personal success or identity?
  • Do we hold famous people up to different standards when it comes to interpersonal and moral expectations?

 

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