Culture Talks To Culture In 'Slaughterhouse 90210'
The title of Maris Kreizman's Slaughterhouse 90210 is, on the one hand, catchy and funny, and it certainly communicates the book's basic conceit: pictures from the world of pop culture paired with quotes from the world of great literature. Based on Kreizman's Tumblr of the same name, the book does its thing with a wink and a dose of wit in many cases, to be sure.
But the title also suggests a glibness that is, marvelously, not present in the book — a distance that I don't think Kreizman has from this material. This book is a real live cultural argument and, for me, an important one, inventively made. It is an argument, presented with blunt evidence rather than explanation, that works of what we consider high and low culture can not only be appreciated by the same people (a tiff we've been having in the cultural criticism world for quite a while now), but can be placed in direct conversation with each other.
That juxtaposition can certainly be presented as mildly ironic and silly, as it usually is in the countless Tumblrs that mash up this television show with that great novel. That's not what this book is, though; this book is pointing to real through lines that connect art in different formats across cultures and decades and centuries, and that underscore how often what seems to be a work of pure entertainment is striking notes of curiosity that aren't entirely different from what drives people to care about the highest of art.
Yes, the book opens with a shot of the cast of Beverly Hills, 90210 alongside the Vonnegut quote, "Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt." That's the setup. That's the handshake between Kreizman and the reader: this is what we're doing. Because you get the joke a little, these beautiful people in their painless existences and the sly suggestion that this has very much to do with what Vonnegut was talking about.
But the farther you press forward into the book, the more thoughtful and sometimes provocative it gets, and the more intuitive sense it makes. See Rayanne and Ricky from My So-Called Life standing by the lockers, her searching expression aimed up at his uncertainty. And next to them, this Dostoyevsky passage from Notes from Underground: "Yet, I didn't understand that she was intentionally disguising her feelings with sarcasm; that was usually the last resort of people who are timid and chaste of heart, whose souls have been coarsely and impudently invaded; and who, until the last moment, refuse to yield out of pride and are afraid to express their own feelings to you."
This is not funny as much as it is ... really true. This is Dostoyevsky explaining Rayanne Graff, explaining exactly the kind of person she was and what made her so compelling to people. And that means two things: Dostoyevsky is relevant if you want to understand Rayanne, and Rayanne might fascinate the same people who love Notes from Underground. The difficulties of a damaged person who covers emotion with hostility may be a cliche by now, but that's not a cliche that was invented by television. That's a story towards which many sophisticated readers have leaned as well.
A P.G. Wodehouse quote about the acquisition of poise by eleven-year-old girls sits beside a shot of Hermione Granger, wits fully about her, aiming her wand. Lorelai and Rory Gilmore are beautifully explained by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Tolstoy speaks to the conditions of the women in Orange Is The New Black.
Kreizman, whose words aren't even on these pages, pokes and provokes through juxtaposition alone: Carrie Bradshaw stares blankly in the direction of a Zadie Smith quote that ends, "Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time." Her compassion for Dwight and Angela from The Office bleeds through the decision to accompany them with a Carson McCullers passage: "A most mediocre person can be the object of a love which is wild, extravagant, and beautiful as the poison lilies of the swamp."
Very often, the passages take words originally written about one thing and extend them to another in an intriguing act of borrowing: Tobias Wolff's writing in This Boy's Life lies next to a shot of Katniss Everdeen being forced forward by Effie, which transfers thoughts about power from a family memoir about a boy in the 1950s and suggests they have a natural resonance in a work of dystopian fiction set in the future.
We've come at least some distance in making more permeable the barriers between what is high and what is low when it comes to culture; far enough, in fact, that film snobbery can be deemed in need of a defense in the pages of The New York Times. (To quote a work of low culture, and with great and abiding respect: as if.) But what still doesn't happen very often is any recognition that these high and low and in-between works not only can coexist but are related — that they share themes and reasons for existing and, most critically, reasons they're loved.
As proud film snobs (and snobs in other fields — remember, not my word in this case) push back against cultural populism, one of their arguments is often that what matters most in art is formal technique — the very thing that one needs special training to be able to understand, the very thing that you need a critic or an expert to explain to you. To focus on thinking through a work's ideas for their own sake, on its story, on its view of the world, or on the common emotional notes that allow works to speak to each other despite being written in different languages on different continents in different centuries is, under this view, to neglect true art. To interrogate what causes popular things to be popular is to focus on the responses to art offered by regular people with no expertise at all, which is to be, by definition, common.
But unless we do that, unless we look at how often popular things are different inflections of ideas with which every kind of art has always concerned itself, opportunities to celebrate the straightforwardly human elements in literature or art-house films will suffer, too. Even if building a high wall between what is serious and what is frivolous serves to protect difficult art from the intrusion of pleasure-seekers, it also prevents us from making the argument that many great books and many great films and many great shows can be read and watched for pleasure. They can be read for their humanity, for their resonance — not only for the things that make them distinctive accomplishments of form but also for the things that make them common and accessible and intimate. You don't recognize the universality of the themes of Empire only to appreciate Empire, but also to demonstrate that if you care about those themes, you might also enjoy some pretty high art. Even if we acknowledge that entertainment and enrichment are both valid, suggesting there is a bright either-or between those functions doesn't just deny popular art the respect it deserves; it denies high art the elemental affection it deserves.
What Slaughterhouse 90210 does, in a gentle and curious way that distinguishes it utterly from many similarly formatted books, is to push those connections forward: here is an echo between this Russian novel and this American television series. Here is an echo between Flannery O'Connor and The Wonder Years, between E.M. Forster and Say Anything, between Maya Angelou and Bruce Springsteen.
It's fun and funny, yes, but also surprising, moving, and thoughtful. It's a book that makes, in many ways, the argument for precisely the kind of work that it is.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.