Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: A Massive Swelling, by Cintra Wilson

One-line summary: A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque Crippling Disease is a hilarious flaming jeremiad against the culture of fame, but so last decade.


Goodreads: Average: 3.85. Mode: 4 stars.
Amazon: Average: 4.2. Mode: 5 stars.

Whether you lust after it, loathe it, or feign apathy toward it, fame is in your face. Cintra Wilson gets to the heart of our humiliating fascination with celebrity and all its preposterous trappings in these hilarious, whip-smart, and subversive essays. Often radical and always a scream, Wilson takes on every sacred cow, toppling icons as diverse as Barbra Streisand, Ike Turner, Michael Jackson, and-for obvious reasons-Bruce Willis. She exposes events like the Oscars and even athletic jamborees as having grown a "tumescent aura of Otherness." Wilson's scathing and irresistible dissections of Las Vegas as "the Death Star of Entertainment," and Los Angeles as "a giant peach of a dream crawling with centipedes" pulse with her enlightened rejection of all things false and vain and egotistical. Written with her trademark zeal and intelligence, A Massive Swelling is the antidote for the fame virus that infects us all.

Back around the turn of the century, I put this book on my Amazon wish list for some reason, probably because someone or other had recommended it to me. I'm not usually much of a People magazine reader or Entertainment Tonight viewer, but I did enjoy Cintra Wilson's Salon columns back when I still read Salon.

So, ten years later I saw a cheap copy of this now out-of-print book and picked it up.

It's funny. It's also dated and repetitive. Nowadays I try to finish all the books I start, but I started skimming halfway through, not because A Massive Swelling is bad, but because after the first few essays, it's pretty much just more of the same.

Wilson's writing is satirical, scathing, over-the-top, tasteless, mean and snarky. The ironic and prescient passage below, about Michael Jackson, is a relatively mild sample:

I was worried for a long time that Michael was going to die soon; nobody I knew thought that Michael could live very long, particularly in his disgraced Short Eyes state, like Wat, the no-nosed man in the King Arthur legend who lived in the woods and bit children. I had a pseudomystical experience where I had a strange vision of Michael's autopsy photo. In many circles, bootlegs of this would be a very hot item that would get passed around the sicko cognoscenti in L.A. the same way that color Xeroxes of the police shot of Kurt Cobain after his suicide secretly made the rounds. Jesus, I thought, it's the only way the world will ever know what the poor little guy actually looked like under all those buckles, powder, and paste.

And herein is the problem: it's funny, if you like brutal deconstructions of big celebrities and the culture of fame, but Wilson writes like this throughout the book, a non-stop torrent of biting neologisms and pot shots in long blocks of text that make you picture her delivering these polemics in a blaze as high as the coke-addled celebrities she mocks.

Open to a random page and you'll find something cruel, true, and funny. But once you've read the first few essays, you've read them all. She just shifts target from one chapter to the next: Las Vegas, L.A., Celine Dion, Bruce Willis, plastic surgery, beauty pageants, the Hollywood Awards Ceremony, etc.

Wait, you're saying: Celine Dion? Bruce Willis? Weren't they famous, like, a geological age ago, in Hollywood years?

Yeah, that's the other problem: A Massive Swelling was written in 2000. Any book snarking on celebrities and pop culture is going to be pretty dated after ten years. You'll still recognize most of the names Wilson points and laughs at, but they're mostly celebrities who are rarely seen nowadays except at award ceremonies and the occasional Oscar-bait film or celebrity shows for the desperate-to-be-remembered-again. So, no mention of Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton or Brangelina. Survivor debuted in 2000, so this book missed the ensuing reality TV cataclysm, and it barely even mentions the Internet.

That said, if you like this kind of thing, it's funny and vicious and not yet so dated as to be completely irrelevant. Really, the underlying phenomenon Wilson talks about -- the pathetic, desperate grasp for celebrity and the general public who clings to any miserable scrap of reflected fame and schadenfreude they can get -- is as timely today as ever. She publishes actual letters from the mothers of tween girls to boy bands -- not the tween girls, their mothers -- that will shrivel whatever kind of genitalia you've got. Just replace 'N Sync with Justin Bieber, and it's still current.

Now excuse me, I have to go bleach my brain with a nice cleansing bath of Dickens or Tolstoy.

Verdict: If you see this in the dollar bin, it's worth picking up. Someday all the names in this book will be trivia questions, but the savage snark is timeless.
Tags: books, mockety-mock-mock, non-fiction, reviews

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