Tuesday, January 22, 2008

29.2 Review: Newsworld by Todd James Pierce

Todd James Pierce, Newsworld. Pittsburgh: U. of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. $24.95 hardcover (ISBN 0-8229-4299-2), 216 pages.
Reviewed by Chad Anderson

In his short story collection, Newsworld, Todd James Pierce tackles a vivid and varied landscape of human relationships through the lens of contemporary media and popular culture.

These ten stories, told by first person narrators, often swing between smart humor and dark morbidity. While Pierce’s collection surveys the famous and infamous icons of American culture, he focuses primarily on those on the outside looking in—the consumers of news and entertainment.

Newsworld, however, is not simply an exposé on the media and popular culture. Instead, Pierce uses these elements to explore his characters’ identities, their loves and losses, and their reactions to the world around them. The title story features a theme park, Newsworld, with rides such as “Watergate Hotel: The Break-In,” “Siege at Waco,” and “OJ’s Bronco: Final Pursuit.” At the story’s core, however, is the unnamed narrator, a ride designer who busies himself with “creating rides that would be a testament to [his] own period of history and to the drama of human life we have all witnessed on TV.” He is so enraptured with the news and larger American culture that he loses touch with own life, damaging his most intimate relationships. Pierce skillfully illustrates how the news and popular culture can be both pervasive and acutely personal.

Pierce also explores how American culture’s representations of “ideal” masculinity often intersect with violence. The story, “Columbine: The Musical,” centers on Greg, a push-over with little ambition or confidence who holds imaginary morning chats with his absent father and doubts the affections of his beautiful, but condescending girlfriend, Susan. Things change, however, when Greg stumbles into a role in his high school play dramatizing the Columbine school shooting. Cast as gunman Dylan Klebold, Greg only finds the necessary rage to play his character after dropping a dumbbell on his foot in the school gym. As he channels Klebold, Greg impresses his theater teacher and fellow students, bosses around groups of freshmen, and enjoys Susan’s renewed attraction to him. The more Greg embraces Klebold’s anger and violence, the more Susan finds him irresistible. Greg’s change, nevertheless, is short-lived. During a morning vision, Greg’s father is silent and Dylan Klebold appears, telling Greg: “You have no idea how to be me. You drop a dumbbell on your foot. You think that’s insight. You think that’s pain.” Subsequently, Greg loses his Klebold persona, the respect of his peers, and his girlfriend. In Greg’s downfall, Pierce deftly renders the regrettable link in American culture between male self-worth and violence.

The final story in the collection, “Newsworld II,” further explores the connections between the media, masculinity, and violence, following a group of Atlanta private-school boys as they attempt to break into Newsworld’s San Francisco Earthquake attraction on September 11th. The story’s narrator confides that emotions are “mysterious” sensations he and his classmates cannot comprehend or express. Although they frequently see explosions and death on television and movie screens, they cannot grasp the reality of 9/11, as illustrated when one boy laughs at the footage, mistaking it for an action movie. They believe the attraction’s “carefully organized debris…the piles of bricks, the broken pieces of plastic designed to look like glass” will help them understand the destruction wrought in the attacks on the World Trade Center. The students seek out the rubble of a fake San Francisco “to feel something other than the vague ache [they felt] all week,” hoping emotion will “fill [their] bodies like a golden light.” Before they can break into the attraction, however, security guards stop them. As in “Columbine: The Musical,” young men react to acts of violence, and are only able to gain a sense of their emotional selves through aggression. Pierce’s depiction of masculinity leaves the reader questioning a culture that teaches young men that aggression and violence are the keys to ideal manhood and the best methods of expressing emotion. When these same men act on these lessons, American culture quickly punishes and demonizes them, but refuses to consider its own complicity in their behavior.

The characters in Newsworld must react to the influence of larger culture in their individual lives. In “Arise and Walk, Christopher Reeve,” an elderly gardener and his wife Edna watch the struggles of their paralyzed celebrity neighbor, Christopher Reeve, while facing Edna’s chronic memory loss. When a special treatment does not heal Reeve, Edna confronts the possibility that she too may never be healed. Observing Edna, her husband, the narrator, says: “I believed she was deciding right then who she’d be for the rest of her life—and I understood the next moment to be crucial in a way few moments ever are.” Edna chooses hope, chooses not to allow Reeve’s condition or her own illness to interfere with her peace in the present. In a way, Edna’s decision reveals Pierce’s wish for all of his characters to establish an identity that withstands the larger-than-life images flashing across their television screens.

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