Monday, May 2, 2011

Lighten up, Tina

On Tina Fey's Bossypants
Tina Fey has been called the funniest woman in America. Until I read Bossypants, her disappointingly negligible new book, I’d probably have agreed. Fey’s 30 Rock is the sharpest sitcom on TV. It’s full of quotable, literary lines. Bossypants, alas, is not. It’s too rambling and loosely written to make you laugh; you suspect that Fey composed it with less care than she lavishes on her show. In an age when the best TV writing strives for permanence, books like this one are becoming ever more disposable.

But let’s begin with Fey’s strengths. There may be no better practitioner of the one-liner in America today. Here she is on how it felt to grow up in the 1970s: “It was always ‘Day 27’ of something in Beirut”. And here’s what she said, during an impersonation of Sarah Palin, on the topic of gay marriage: “I believe marriage is meant to be a sacred institution between two unwilling teenagers.” (At the time, we should recall, Palin’s pregnant daughter had just celebrated a lightning engagement to her luckless inseminator.)

That’s how Fey sounds at her best: compact, venomous, bang on target. But you can’t construct a 270-page book entirely out of one-liners. Over the long haul, Fey turns out, inevitably, to be a less scintillating performer. Mostly her book is a mildly jocular autobiography, sprinkled with some purely comic chapters that never really take fire. She declines to tell the “whole story” behind her famous scar, saying only what she’s already said in interviews: at the age of five, she was slashed across the face by a stranger. There’s some interesting stuff about the nuts and bolts of TV writing. There’s an excellent chapter about a calamitous luxury cruise.

All this is readable, occasionally moving, and better than average for a book of this kind. But that’s the problem: this is just a celebrity memoir, when Fey seemed more than qualified to deliver the book of a real writer.

30 Rock is refreshing because it offers a wide-angled perspective on America’s cultural insanity. One assumed this book would be like that too: cool, sceptical, above the American fray. Instead Fey embraces many of the trivial celebrity-culture priorities that her show so trenchantly lampoons. She has no quarrel, for example, with the Oprahesque assumption that the self, especially the outer surface of it, is an endlessly discussable topic. She tries to be ironical about getting manicures and posing for glamour shots, but she doesn’t find these things quite absurd enough to stop doing them. She seeks credit, and perhaps even deserves it, for having “thus far refused to get any Botox or plastic surgery.” But a culture in which that qualifies as a radical act, akin to refusing treatment for an arrow in the neck, should get a far more comprehensive satirical spray than Fey gives it here. 30 Rock would give it one. But Bossypants fatally personalises the big social questions. Defending her private “choices”, Fey sounds too touchy to be funny.

Back in the 1970s, Woody Allen published three volumes of comic pieces that were ultimately collected as his Complete Prose. To measure Fey’s book against Allen’s is to realise how drastically the American mind has shrivelled over the intervening years. Allen’s range of interests was ridiculously wider. Dostoevsky, Kafka, Plato, Van Gogh, Yeats, Gertrude Stein – many an Allen joke depended on your having at least a rough idea who such people were. When Fey drops a name from ancient history, it invariably turns out to be someone from a horrible TV show. Larry Wilcox? Jon from CHiPs. Robert Wuhl? The guy from Arli$$. It’s moderately funny, once or twice, when a woman as smart as Fey conjures the name of some long-forgotten TV hack, or drops some gangsta catchphrase. But when she confines herself to the same tiny spectrum of trash-culture references for the course of a whole book, you struggle for air. 

When Fey does risk a lone literary allusion – her cruise-ship chapter is entitled “My Honeymoon, or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again Either” – she adds a clanging footnote that epitomises the book’s weaknesses: “If you get this reference to David Foster Wallace’s 1997 collection of essays, consider yourself a member of the cultural elite. Why do you hate your country and flag so much?!” Fey’s deft touch deserts her here, as it does in so many parts of the book: she lets anger propel her beyond irony into sarcasm. But we should probably cut her some slack on this one. America’s idiots want her down there in the trenches of the culture wars. The temptation to take the odd brutal crack at them must be awfully hard to resist.  

Fey got a six million dollar advance for this book. That, even in US dollars, is a fair whack. No doubt she felt obliged to deliver the kind of book that would earn the money back. But it isn’t much fun watching an intelligent writer pretend to be less smart than she really is. Writing for TV, Fey has never seemed to doubt what her audience wants: it wants her to write at her very best. She doesn’t seem to think readers of this book will want the same thing. Reading Bossypants, you get a feeling you never get while watching 30 Rock: the feeling you’re being written down to.  

(Originally published in The Weekend Australian, May 21-22, 2011)