Saturday, March 07, 2009

40 Days of Lent: Day Eleven

01:44 SPY: The Funny Years
Edited by Kurt Andersen, Graydon Carter, George Kalogerakis

My first book report this year fits in with the Days of Lent, given that those who worked at SPY magazine seemed motivated by the Deadly Sins of Pride and Envy.

I can remember searching for the first issue of Spy after reading an Associated Press article about a sharp new satiric magazine. It sounded like everything I was looking for. Unfortunately, I was looking in the wrong place: Wilkes-Barre, PA, to be exact, where I was living at the time. We might have gotten Associated Press articles, sure, but sophisticated “New York Monthlies?” No way.

As related in the combination memoir/anthology SPY: The Funny Years, I wasn’t alone on either count. People who lived in New York had trouble finding early issues, and there were others across the nation who were excited about a monthly satire magazine. The first issue I saw was April 1988, The “Nice” Issue. I picked it up at a stopover in Chicago while taking the train across the country and was quickly initiated. Things that hadn’t mattered to me (like cover boy Donald Trump) now did, once I learned of their inherent odiousness through SPY’s clever, nasty articles. The nastiness became more apparent (actually, inescapable) later, but what initially impressed me was how much fun the magazine was to read. The crazy charts, the articles in tiny print that ran alongside the margins, columns that gave the inside scoop about The New York Times or professional critics. There seemed to be so much in that issue, yet I didn’t feel sated after I had read, and re-read, everything it contained. Just the opposite, in fact.

And so it seemed with the issues that followed. Looking at the covers reproduced on The Funny Years’ endpapers, I can remember where I was when I first saw the 1988-89 issues. June ‘88, with Graham Chapman as a “coaster:” I flipped through it at Cody’s Books in Berkeley before buying. March ’89, with a smug Chevy Chase representing the Irony Epidemic: couldn’t wait for my break, kept flipping through the issue while at work. I didn’t have much money when I lived in California – I was on the macaroni and cheese diet most of the time – but I always bought SPY magazine. I can remember at the time thinking that, as good as the magazine was, it wasn’t quite “there” yet. It was a good magazine (very good, I suppose) but not great. The issues were getting better and better but it hadn’t peaked, which I looked forward to with anticipation.

That peak never really came. Looking back, you can choose a run of issues and say that it was the magazine at its best, but examine those issues and a sense of repetition, a formula, becomes apparent and annoying. I think this was one of the magazine’s fatal flaws. Magazines have a house style and a consistent tone, true, but SPY, after fairly quickly finding its voice, didn’t do anything but repeat, but with diminishing returns. Just as every young man eventually has an epiphany and realizes that every issue of Mad magazine is basically the same, so it was with SPY. The other fatal flaw was not just the repetition but also the tone itself. Being mean can be cathartic and liberating, for a while, but consistent meanness becomes tiresome, and as a tool for satire, ineffective because it eliminates point of view. If everything is corrupt, why should anyone care about the special loathsomeness of Donald Trump?

The memoir section of The Funny Years is obviously for fans of the magazine*. Its insights run along the lines of “we had fun – you shoulda been there!” The editors and writers come across as clever and sensible people who, you know, sat at their desks and worked. More interesting is how the magazine was always a shoestring operation given that each issue “seemed” rich in that 1980s kinda way. It’s disappointing that so little from the actual magazine is reprinted. Pages are reprinted in their entirety to give a sense of the interplay of graphics and text that was a hallmark of the magazine, but unfortunately, at a smaller than original size, which makes reading more of an effort. Even though I have all my old issues, I was disappointed that most of what’s reprinted are fragments rather than entire articles. There are pieces that justify the magazine’s reputation: I was amazed at how good the “Great Expectations” essay written by Kurt Andersen was. The quality of the writing, dense yet paced to zip along, is rarely found in magazines anymore. An article about “Yuppie Porn” (making and marketing mundane items like knives and telephones as luxury goods) makes the distinction: “…pornography – the objectification of bodies…[whereas] yuppie pornography – the objectification of objects.” You can substitute “materialism” for “yuppie pornography” but I think the idea of “objectification of objects” is just about perfect.

*Are there still fans of the magazine? I picked up my copy of this book for $2.99 at the bargain table at Borders. I can't imagine paying the list prices of $39.95.

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