Dreaming of Gwen Stefani
Over the last several years, there’s been a glut of middle-brow novels centered around, and obsessed with, pop culture. The Autograph Man, Welcome to Yesterday, even Bill Gaston’s lofty sounding, but headache inducing novel The Cameraman. All had snark, all had oomph. What they lacked was…well, meat. Intellectual meat, and not only that, they tended to run fairly long, like a three hour epic running at a multiplex in Chapel Hill. None of this describes Evan Mandery’s debut novel Dreaming of Gwen Stefani at all.
Set in New York City, the 182 page novel follows the life of Mortimer Taylor Coleridge, a former evolutionary biology major and college dropout as he toils in relative obscurity, dispensing hot dogs to customers at the Papaya Dog eatery. He has an apartment, a collection of Star Trek memorabilia, and a girlfriend, Violet, who Mortimer doesn’t love yet is nevertheless devoted to. When he flicks the remote and encounters a video of Gwen Stefani one rainy morning, all that disappears. Instantly, he is transfixed- some would say obsessed- with the No Doubt singer, breaking up with his girlfriend, discarding his trappings, and adopting an ascetic existence. All in the service of Stefani.
Almost immediately, he takes on the persona of a religious convert, or an oversexed adolescent, depending on the perspective of the reader. But he still has doubts, doubts about Stefani and about his own purpose in life. It sounds like the plot of a certain novel from six years back. However this isn’t about seeking a precious autograph, or coming to terms with the death of a loved one- though he does have parental abandonment issues. What it ultimately comes down to is the meaning of faith- and free will. Are we autonomous, or are our lives determined for us from birth? Is there such a thing as a benevolent unseen hand guiding us down the proverbial beach, or are we all victims of the nucleic acids, as Coleridge would say?
Heady stuff to consider for a novel that is ostensibly about Papaya Dogs and music videos. But rather than get moored in the philosophical nihilism versus existentialism debate, Mandery manages to steer the ship clear of the academic shoals, keeping the focus first and foremost, on the action of the story. Coleridge may ponder his existence once and awhile over a large cola, but he’s rarely static. He walks through 110th Street. He deposits goods at a pawn shop in the Bronx. He even gets into an argument with a shrink in one flashback scene–the lone tribune to the postmodern movement that influenced Mandery and countless others over the past twenty years.
Though it isn’t quite Nobel material, at $15, Dreaming of Gwen Stefani is worth a skim, if not a read.
— John Winn