07.06.10

Clueless for Boys

A hilarious new novel from SNL prodigy Simon Rich combines Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh, and, yes, Clueless. Liesl Schillinger on the SNL writer and humor prodigy’s novel, Elliot Allagash, and the art of satire.

In 2007, at the age of 23, Simon Rich published his first book, a collection of short comic riffs called Ant Farm, which I came across by accident and briefly reviewed (a rave) in the Times Styles section. The next year he published his second book, resembling the first, called Free-Range Chickens. Though I didn’t review that one, I gave it to my brothers for Christmas to add to their de-rigueur bathroom-book reading, along with The Onion’s Our Dumb Century, Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like, and the 1978 Harvard Lampoon Sunday newspaper parody (edited by P.J. O'Rourke and the late John Hughes.) Now 26, Rich has produced Elliot Allagash, his third book and first novel: not a succession of sprints, but a sustained long-distance effort. Once again, I feel the irresistible pull to write about it; which at this stage makes me feel a little stalkerish.

Open the book on the beach or by the lake, and shed a crocodile tear, if you can muster one, for the craven ambition of youth.

To be clear; I have no stake whatsoever in the success or failure of the career of this particular comic writer, whom I may have met once, briefly, at a reading by recent Harvard Lampoon alums at KGB Bar, a few years back. (I know I did see him there; he reminded me of John Irving's Owen Meany, with his slender, doll-like appearance and curiously charismatic aura.) Nonetheless, I have an abiding interest in the continued existence of the satirical novel—the kind of book that exists to be re-read, passed around, and handed down. Rich is now writing for Saturday Night Live; so when I picked up the galley of his long-form début, I wondered, quite simply, if he would pull it off. I feared that the book, set in the sketch-comedy-ready world of the American high school (albeit a private one, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side) might read like the recent novel by another writer proficient in episodic comedy (“The Simpsons”); Larry Doyle’s I Love You, Beth Cooper, a pleasurable Hughesish dweeb’s-apotheosis comedy, which was well-received (and speedily filmed), but which wasn’t a book I would take pains to stock in a summer house.

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Elliot Allagash: A Novel. By Simon Rich. 240 pages. Random House. $23.99. ()

As I plunged into Elliot Allagash, my hopes were exceeded almost immediately, and soon I was laughing with guilty glee, both at Rich’s sharp-eyed depiction of American class hierarchies, and at his mercilessly unsentimental treatment of his two male leads; the title character, a creepy, tiny, boundlessly wealthy sociopath named Elliot Allagash (who bears a physical resemblance to…Owen Meany), and the eighth-grade dork Seymour Herson, a tubby Mama’s-and-Papa’s boy who sits alone in the school cafeteria at lunchtime, ducking the blows of the school’s reigning jock, Lance; and pining for the attentions of the popular girl Jessica—whose body had inflated over the summer to Wonder Woman proportions, and who gets in trouble for wearing tube tops and face glitter to school. “Who could blame her,” Seymour rationalizes. “Jessica was like a brand-new superhero who had only recently discovered her mutant powers. She had to get a crazy costume. It’s the first thing you did when you became a superhero.” Before Elliot arrives on the scene, Seymour’s social life consists of playing Monopoly with his parents on Fridays. To give him a break…he’s 13. Post- Elliot, Seymour finds himself meeting up before school for Bloody Marys at the Saint Regis (“Hold the tomato juice”). Should Seymour join the spree, since Elliot’s stratagems could land him a spot in the Harvard freshman class? Peer pressure is so brutal.

Here is the outline of Elliot Allagash: a scheming young person plots the transformation of a thoroughly average young friend—someone who “certainly was not clever,” but has a “docile, grateful disposition,” is “totally free from conceit,” and (tacitly) screams to be reshaped by a shrewd social engineer. The project, eventually, ends in disaster. This you may notice, also is the outline of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, Emma (the source of the quotations above) as well as of the film director Amy Heckerling’s 1995 comedy, Clueless. Following Elliot and Seymour’s adventures, I exulted, page after page, to see how effectively Rich had cross-dressed Austen’s storyline, remaking it into a new suit of clothes. He had switched the narrative focus, so that the dominant point of view was not of the Machiavelli (Emma, Cher, or, in this case, Elliot); but of the marionette (Harriet, Tai, and in this case, Seymour). Another difference: the chief goal of the characters was not romantic partnership, but naked social power. Yet I wonder if Rich had Austen in mind when he set to typing…or if he would feel pleasure (as opposed to distaste) at the idea that a reader, upon devouring his creation, would yearn to see it replay as a sequel to the Heckerling film—“ Clueless for Boys.” I suspect that, if he had a literary ancestor in mind as he charted Seymour Herson’s rise, it was not Austen or Heckerling, but Evelyn Waugh.

Waugh published his first novel, Decline and Fall, when he was 25; and though its action begins in college, not secondary school (Scone College), both débuts ripple with blasé references to alcoholism, private clubs, abductions, expensive art, whorehouses, and other trappings of the sophisticated male brut ideal. And both are studded with rococo set pieces of ruthless masculine one-upmanship. A century on, some of Waugh’s ideas of what’s funny (i.e., racism) now produce cringing, not laughter. As anyone knows who ever picked up Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Vicar of Wakefield,” expecting hilarity, humor is highly subjective, and does not always outlast the era that produced it. But Rich’s contemporary set pieces are a joy to read; drenched in energetic cynicism, and offensive only “up to a point,” as Waugh would have it, gingerly skirting current taboos.

It would be cruel to reveal too many of Rich’s inventions. But, to give a taste: in one, Elliot destroys Lance’s chances in the race for class president by feeding him a faked crib sheet for a quiz on the American Civil War, which Lance blindly follows. To the question, “Which fearsome terrorist organization sprung up in the South during the 1860s,” Lance writes, “The Underground Railroad.” To the question “2) Who commanded this group of terrorists?” He answers “Harriet Tubman.” Elliot explains to Seymour (whose own chances for election victory are now much improved) that Lance didn’t get in trouble for cheating, “He was punished for his hateful belief system.” Elliot learned his guile at the knee of his depraved, never-sober father (marvelously named “Terry”), who regales Seymour with unending tales of how he used his grotesque riches and amoral deviousness to gain his selfish ends. Like his father, Elliot has grown “accustomed to a level of decadence so extreme that to go without luxury for even a minute fills me with a powerful rage.”

Seymour’s family values are nothing like Elliot’s. The Herson family’s idea of decadence is to leave the last slice of brisket uneaten at family dinners, though all of them crave it. But when Seymour, now remedially schooled in entitlement, takes the brisket, they grow uneasy. Sure, their plump pariah son is now a svelte, BMOC, class president and (on paper) world-class polymath. But is he family anymore? Rich pretends to care.

Open the book on the beach or by the lake, and shed a crocodile tear, if you can muster one, for the craven ambition of youth.

Corrects to reflect John Irving is author of A Prayer for Owen Meany

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Liesl Schillinger is a New York-based writer and literary critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York magazine, The Washington Post, the New Republic, The London Independent on Sunday, and other publications here and abroad.