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Other Book Reviews:

Palladio
- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

Atonement
- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

Godspeed
- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

Somebody's Gotta Tell It!
-
Jack Newfield
Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
- Vince Passaro

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace
- Gore Vidal
The War Against Cliche
- Martin Amis
Look at Me
- Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
- Jon Ronson

Tishomingo Blues
- Elmore Leonard

Letters to a Young Contrarian - Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor -
Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller
Shanghai Baby -
Wei Hui
Shop Talk -
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame -
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel -
David Markson
My Name is Red -
Orhan Pamuk
The Corrections -
Jonathan Franzen
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America -
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young

Palladio
Jonathon Dee
Doubleday, 2002

Jonathon Dee's latest novel, Palladio, is nothing if not ambitious. He attempts a tale that encompasses most, if not all, of the great twentieth-century themes. Okay, probably not all, but let's see what he's dealing with here:

1. The validity of art
2. The truth/lies of advertising
3. Random, possibly self-destructing sexual encounters
4. Avoidance of intimacy
5. Total dysfunction of family
6. Utopians created by benevolent dictators
7. Religion

I can't help but admire Dee's voluminous ambition, since so many of those themes have been done to death before, and staring down the barrel of a gun loaded with those bullets is certainly more daring than catching a single one in your teeth. But each theme has had its very own novel to call its own, and those respective books were big and tough enough with only that to contend with.

Palladio tells the two stories of Molly Howe and John Wheelwright. In the first half of the book, we get Molly's story. Molly is an extraordinary beauty living in upstate New York whose family is an unemotional lot. The avoid each other like estranged lovers. Her brother, Richard, answers questions in a manner that leaves it impossible to tell whether he is being genuine or sarcastic or genuinely sarcastic or sarcastically genuine or that he even remembers who these people talking to him are, Molly's parents hardly bother speaking to each other anymore, and eventually make Ophelia's meltdown look subtle. Molly's beauty, though, attracts men to her in an impossibly easy manner, and it has the effect of making men see her as be anything they want her to be. We don't see this, it just is, which is one of the bigger problems with Dee's creation of Molly: Little explanation is offered to explain why she, or her family for that matter, are so passive and dead on the inside; it's just one of life's little mysteries, like why does upstate New York breeds such contempt in contemporary fiction writers?

After the whole small town learns of her affair with the father of a kid she baby sits for, Molly flees across the country to Berkeley where her brother is going to school and gradually becoming a rhetoric-spewing fundamentalist Christian. But she takes a room in his house anyway. Very much like today's growing out-of-work twenty-somethings, she audits classes and takes odd jobs occasionally to fill the hours of her days.

Whereas Molly's story is told in the past, the story of John Wheelwright is told in the present, where we find him gainfully employed at an advertising firm in turmoil. One of the partners, Mal Osbourne, has created a commotion with an unorthodox client pitch that backfires, resulting in his abruptly quitting the firm. John is summoned by Mal to go trolling for art and artists in NYC, but Mal remains an obscure and silent figure in John's first brief encounter with him. Eventually though, John is summoned again by Mal to join a new agency called Palladio. Mal's vision is an agency in which art becomes advertising. At first it vaguely resembles advertising, with billboards, TV spots, and the like. Soon, though, it morphs into something resembling early downtown performance art (think Maurizio Cattelan*) and one-of-a-kind installations (think Olaf Breuning**).

It's a bit of a naïve creation, on Dee's part. I can't help but think that anyone who has ever even momentarily mused on advertising (specifically the dot-com ad splash of the '90s, where the product was secondary to building the brand) has thought of this same Utopian vision. At Palladio, where Mal has assembled a collection of avant-garde artists, no one is even told the product or company they are supposed to be advertising. They are just given free reign to create. Apparently this sort of idealistic innocence is what the world wanted, because the company takes off and becomes a giant success. Who woulda thunk it.

Along the way various groups and individuals try to take Palladio down, including a filmmaker and two ex-university professors. John is supposed to ease these dissenters' worries (and both times tries to bribe them to enter the folds of Palladio), but he is unable to and in the end the firm immolates of its own accord in a brilliant moment of pretension and hubris.

The stories of Molly and John eventually converge in the second half, the half narrated by John. Molly meets John at Berkeley, moves in with him, and the two become romantically linked, if it can be called that. She remains passive as he devotes more and more of himself to her. She is essentially an object that men project onto. Whatever they want, she becomes, but not by changing anything about herself. She is described by Mal as "the anti-Heisenberg; she's not changed by being observed." Mal finds this a good thing. As advertising promises wish-fulfillment, so does Molly-at least to the men in her life. She remains impossible to actually own, however, and of course cannot grant the wishes of her suitors any more than a brand-new Starck-designed potato peeler can make you a suave blue-blood earning six figures with a chic loft in SoHo and a plasma TV. You have to inherit that.

Molly and John's stories finally clash when she visits Palladio with her filmmaker boyfriend who wants to film the agency for a documentary, and expose its brash treatment of art. The filmmaker is turned away, but not before Mal can steal Molly from him and continue the circle of her being revered like a precious statue only to take flight and leave her suitor in disarray. Why does she leave every time? It appears to have something to do with not being owned, but the thread of a metaphor gets pulled thinner than that of a Nicholson Baker book.

In the end, Dee satirizes and skewers virtually ever subject he touches (see the aforementioned list), and the reader is left wondering what all there is to rejoice and find direction in. Religion is for crackpots who can't relate; academia is a fall-back position for radicals who fail; family become catatonic with ennui; and art and advertising are the foolish endeavors of lunatics and merchants of Venice, respectively.

So the book doesn't entirely succeed. However, Dee is clearly willing to tussle with that which is worth tussling, and he should be read and admired for that alone. Fearlessness should payoff, and though Palladio doesn't deliver on its promises and Dee seems to have come up short in offering any solutions or even stop-gap measures to the problems he posits, it is a highly energetic and enterprising effort that should be valued for that alone. It's not as if there's dearth of people willing to write books about nannies or anything that could be turned into a Hugh Grant vehicle. We get plenty of those, but we deserve more Jonathon Dee's.


* From the MoMa Web site: "In this project Cattelan focuses on the artist Pablo Picasso. By using his likeness in effigy, Cattelan elevates Picasso to a position in European Carnivale celebrations most often reserved for world leaders. An actor in a Carnivale-type Picasso mask will greet visitors to the Museum during the run of the exhibition."

** From The New Yorker's Web site: "Breuning's last show posited the existence of a race of Neanderthal surfers; now he has clicked past "Gidget" and MTV to "Halloween" and the WB, with this life-size diorama of an axe-wielding sex doll's rampage. To get the full view of "Hello Darkness," you have to crawl into a library setup ruined by axes and rigged with flickering lights, strewn books, and a smoke machine. The artist draws a fine line between quoting pop culture and sampling it. "It's not just a cut-and-paste job," he says, for the benefit of those who might appreciate such a distinction. "More a kind of remix." "

-- Chris Gage



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