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SPY Notes dissects the hip urban novel for the student


By the editors of SPY magazine.

Doubleday, $7.95, 92 pp.


THERE ARE CERTAIN BOOKS a person doesn't want to be seen buying. In decades past these were typically pornographic, with vulgar illustrations of love on the cover and titles on the order of Hot Nurses in Waikiki. Today's trash novel comes in subtler clothing, is entitled Bright Lights, Big City or Less Than Zero and is made into a critically unsuccessful motion picture before disappearing from the national consciousness.

More often than not, these books spring from young minds and are saturated with sex, drugs, and ennui. Our generation's authors, it seems, can ruminate on nothing else. The frequency with which these topics are explored makes the genre ripe for parody, which today can only mean a nasty book from the editors of SPY magazine.

SPY's only previous paperback publication, Separated at Birth?, compared nearly-identical photographs of famous and semi-famous people from radically unrelated fields of work. For example, Darryl Strawberry (outfielder for the Mets) and Dino (dinosaur on the Flintstones). This light mocking attitude was missing, however, in SPY Notes, the editors' simultaneous parody of Cliffs Notes and the works of hip urban novelists including Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, and Bret Easton Ellis.

These three form the core of the genre, and thus are well represented in the SPY Notes. McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City leads off. (An experienced user of Cliffs Notes, this is the only book I have read of the 15 parodied.) The authors waste no time in tearing apart both writer and oeuvre, oversimplifying the already stupid plot to humorous effect. The SPY Notes version of chapter one:


Jamie is at an all-night discotheque with Tad. They have been using cocaine. Jamie talks to a girl with a shaved head. He goes into the bathroom and takes some cocaine. He asks a woman to dance, but she declines. He goes to the ladies' bathroom with a different woman. They take cocaine together and discuss how "all the good words" start with the letters "D" and "L." After this witty banter, the girl decides to leave.

Jamie leaves the nightclub and walks past the apartment he once shared with Amanda, remembering how pleasant their life seemed before they married. Then he sits on a pier overlooking the Hudson River and thinks about all the things that are wrong with his life.


Granted, this tell-don't-show method of narration will make any book look flat and uninteresting. To add some depth to the analysis, SPY Notes is equipped with commentaries on each chapter, just as in real Cliffs Notes. It is in these commentaries that we learn about McInerney's arrogance, Janowitz' hyperactive New York social life, and Ellis' poorly conceived allusions to Hemingway.

Between pages 44 and 45 is stapled the SPY Novel-o-Matic, which is actually two sliding cards in windowed sleeves. The reader is invited to select a name for his protagonist from the likes of "Sasha," "Nicolette," and "Rupert." He can assign his Rupert a background and a vice, burden him with boredom and emptiness, whisk him through a storm of drugs and prostitution, and end up with a shallow epiphany, my favorite being "Empty sex in lieu of a fulfilling relationship is all right because nothing means anything in this crazy world." The Novel-o-Matic includes instructions for quick publication and a book-signing party.

SPY Notes reveals one incredible, utterly mockable fact: 11 of the 15 plots summarized hinge upon the death of the protagonist's mother. In the imitation-Cliffs-Notes list of suggested theme topics, the authors ask why this so-called dead mother plot device is so common.


Is this because a) in the 1980s most young people's mothers died before the young people turned 25?

b) most of the authors are still at the age when they hate their parents?

c) each author was convinced that his or her own adolescence was much more traumatic than everyone else's, and a fictional dead mother is a convenient gambit to justify misbehavior and whininess?


Other authors criticized, in addition to the big three, include Lisa Grunwald -- whose Summer contains the dead mother device -- and Jill Eisenstadt, whose only qualification for writing appears to be a diploma from Bennington College, Ellis' alma mater. In addition, the book gives summaries of first novels by Mark Lindquist, Peter Farrelly, Kristin McCloy, and Lisa Pliscou.

On the whole, SPY Notes is an acerbically funny look at this embarrassing decade and its most famous artists. The implicit message it sends, however, may be disheartening to young writers: any work written by someone under thirty, according to the authors, is immature and critically unsuccessful. This view, espoused by what McInerney labeled the "gatekeepers" in an essay in Esquire, is outdated and stultifying to young talent. Nevertheless, SPY Notes deserves to be read for its sheer comic and nostalgic value.