Losing myself in my room as a kid, I’d often sense that the ever-strewn toys surrounding me—my one-armed teddy bear, twin Yodas, and red-suited Bionic Man, to name a few—had warm and complex thoughts. And it seemed quite likely that, say, when my Archie comics weren’t open, the rompish Riverdale High cast went on living out some unknown, yet ever wholesome and unfailingly upbeat, unpaneled lives.
Reading Luke Geddes’s debut collection, I Am a Magical Teenage Princess, recalled such pleasant impressions. Whether showing the human side of Wonder Woman, the yearnings of a pimply “mental hygiene” film subject, or the trials of a lordly, 72-inch model television set as he gradually grows outmoded, Geddes engages us readers so fully that not only do we believe in the substance of his characters, but, in due course, feel the ache in their phosphorous hearts.
To summarize these characters seems, in a way, unfair—reducing them to those stock pop-culture icons Geddes so expertly implodes. Sure, there are the rebel and his weak-kneed followers, the party animal, and the loutish, sex-crazed boys, but what’s most interesting is watching them break from their molds. In “Betty and Veronica,” for instance, the canned dialogue and poses are all there (hilariously, when the two fight, Archie and Reggie cheer on, “Batten the hatches, mate. We’re in for a blow!”), but like lightning on a clear summer day, real life—Veronica’s purging, Betty’s longing for her lover’s commitment—flashes through the cozy pulp world. For the protagonist of “The Party Don’t Stop,” the bash he hosted in youth—now running amuck through adulthood—compounds his sense of loss: “The party was to have been a respite from your desolate post-adolescent existence . . . a homecoming, a reclaiming of mojo, a baptism by beer bong.” And in “Defunct Girl Gangs of North American Drive-Ins,” a story built like a guide of ornithological specimens . . . well, let’s just say that the Zip-Gun Angels, Swingin’ Sassmouths, and Kittens with Whips are unlike any street gangs you’ve known.
As in all good fiction, closely enmeshed to these characters’ lives is place. Details position us in time—typically between the 1950s and ’80s—lending a gloss to most stories suggestive of some near-mythical world. As with character, though, what captivates us most is the incongruous—a priest’s “hot garlic breath,” tall hats that “resembled works of modern art out of wire coat hangers and tin foil,” a wad of chewing gum that’s “fleshy and glistening in the dull wood like a tumor or a set of lips.” But details can also, in a stroke, line up conflicting sides: To the outcast characters, the culture they find themselves in, with its high-minded morals and norms (and, it often seems, intolerance of anyone less than bubbly), creates a nagging pressure, building to such extremes that the only out, finally, is some force in a contrary direction.
In “Invasion,” for example, the fathers of a town are seen as model citizens, “their sprawling suburb a brilliant Technicolor pinup of American values: a television in every living room, a Life magazine on every coffee table, an automobile in every garage.” Now faced with their children’s rebellion—in the form of their daughters’ sudden craze for an unnamed singer—the fathers are at a loss. They watch as the girls dance provocatively, grow breasts overnight, create “shrines on the periwinkle walls of their bedrooms.” Worried, the fathers enlist their sons for help, then arrange for a community record burning. As we read, rather than taking sides (Geddes plays fair enough that we sympathize with several characters), our interest lies more in the conflict’s repercussions, the forms the growing havoc will take. As things unravel, we feel mixed emotions: longing for an impossible past, sadness at the realities impinging on it, glee as the whole sham structure falls.
This collection, then, is a riveting guide to ’50s pop culture and its aftermath, a zany corrective to our sometimes blinkered memories. It’s also, quite simply, a bang-up debut by a writer to read and watch.