The rainbows-and-unicorns title of Luke Geddes’ inspired and highly entertaining short story debut is misleading: I Am a Magical Teenage Princess will not necessarily be an ideal stocking stuffer for your own little princess this Christmas. And you especially can’t tell this book from its chick-lit-like cover.
But a quick perusal of some of the titles might clue you in to the anxiety-closet fears and security-blanket comforts plundered from a panoply of American-pop-culture and treasured guilty pleasures. “Surfer Girl,” “Betty and Veronica,” “Bongo the Space Ape,” “Wonder Woman’s Tampon,” “The Enormous Television Set,” “Another Girl, Another Planet,” “The Modern Stone Age,” “Express Lane,” “And I Would’ve Gotten Away With It If It Hadn’t Been For You Meddling Kids” may conjure up many ripped-from-your-recollections personas and archetypes, entities and premises as found in B-movies, the funny papers, ‘50s and ‘60s TV favorites, and other consumer age thrills and chills culled from the social and cultural trends of the day and the near-past.
And so we get, from the wonderfully imagined “Defunct Girl Gangs of North American Drive-Ins“ the back stories—as cited by “girl gang connoisseurs and anthropologists”—of such big house-bound denizens as Dead Dolls (1964-unknown) who “carry a smell of dust and burning celluloid” and are responsible for an overabundance of film projector breakdowns in the state of Maryland in 1967. The Swingin’ Sassmouths (1955-1956) study their older brothers’ nudist mags in the “moon-glow of the movie screen,” and terrorize kids in the playground, pushing them from the tops of the slides and kicking sand in their faces. And the less said about the Ballsy Falsies (1958-1976), a “small, nomadic hermaphrodite gang,” the better. Same goes for the Hell-Cats in Hot Pants (1950-1960) amassed along the Texas-Mexico border–although “satellite groups were known to flourish as far north as Oklahoma City.”
A threat of another kind concerns “Invasion,” in which concerned fathers of the sprawled-out suburbs, in a mass tizzy of nervous tie-straightening and impromptu meetings in the neighborhood streets of their “brilliant Technicolor pinup of American values,” face the portentous scourge of a new phenomenon. Behold, and beware: the rock and roll idol is here, but not if these men have anything to say about it. These are men, after all, who had “tasted the metallic bite of death and mortar,” in the Second Word War. But are they losing a new battle in a homeland war in which their trembling-lipped daughters, enraptured and emitting “carnal sighs” over a certain pelvis-shaking singer, are irretrievably cast in the spell of this guitar man who “moaned a note so thick and black as the twirl of hair that fell over his eye”?
Of course, this devil in disguise (unless he’s unmasked as a “fonzie,” a phony) is most certainly a rebel—who’ll never ever be any good. More details about this predatory being can be gleaned in the trenchant “He’s a Rebel,” in which Geddes fully and deftly draws on his wit and craftsmanship to trace the circuitous migratory pattern of this elusive nonconformist, now endangered since hunters “brought them to near extinction until the Rebel Preservation Act.”
In a finely-etched and more fondly nostalgic vein, the downward spiral of a more public figure is chronicled in “Bongo the Space Ape,” as the embittered has-been star of a Golden Age sci-fi television series ekes out a living in the remaining years of his waning career, his celebrity and fame–when his “hairy, grinning face graced everything from lunchboxes and comic book covers to toys and cigar advertisements”—a distant memory.
Though the faded-glory focus of a more inanimate kind figures in “The Enormous Television Set,” Geddes nimbly recounts the anthropomorphized consciousness of the titular 72-inch TV as it evolves from gleaming but long-unsold magnificence as a store model at a major electronics store, to shabbier and ever-more dusty stores, less prominent shelves or boxed-up obscurity, and then from buyer to buyer, home to home. All along, however, the author carefully and cohesively assembles amusing and affecting character studies for each customer or sales clerk in the shelf life of the TV.
And who knows? This particular television set might transmit some familiar program–perhaps a situation comedy or the movie it’s based on–about a 16-year old wannabe “Surfer Girl,” characterized in Teenage Princess as a cross between a girl and a midget, whatever that may be. And though Geddes introduces her as being mythically and gingerly deposited on shore by a “foam-lipped wave,” it’s more like a fish out of water emergence, a real life ill-fit indicative of the growing pains and rites-of-passage ahead for our protagonist. Not as a goddess, but as a sentient, plucky sort, albeit with “crimson petals blossoming from the gashes on her forehead and abdomen, skin pale and cold against the glittering white sand, the halo of a sand castle’s moat above her seaweed-tangled hair.”
We like her, we really, really like her. But we might be a little uncomfortable with the anachronistic elements creeping into the story–as if intentional!– and also harbor mixed feelings concerning the oddly contemporaneous surfer crowd she’s attempting to ingratiate herself into, with their leering mores and motivations–especially as it pertains to this Big Kahuna horndog.
But being uncomfortable is part and parcel of Geddes’ approach, even when taken to extremes, as is the case in the ultimate anachronism-crammed example animatedly assumed by “The Modern Stone Age” family, The Flintstones. All the inventive incidentals and components we used to take delight in are here: baby wooly mammoths as vacuum cleaners, alligator-driven lawn mowers, porcupine scrubbing brushes, cars made of wood and stone. But, along with the more in-depth back story, characterizations, and themes we never really cared about anyway as kids, Geddes gives us a more dimensional portrait with which to consider how very thin the veneer of civility and social constructs are. The narrative suggests the doom to come in the aftermath of one false move by Fred, Wilma, Barney or Betty—it doesn’t matter who’s first–when they’ll all fall over like dominoes and take the barely-there bedrock of Bedrock civilization with them into something much more atavistic and feral, more–as a tipsy Fred puts it to a pliable Barney–“B.C. Before Civilization, ha-ha.”
It doesn’t take much more drinking for Fred to succumb to more and more tempting moral reversals as he aks Barney “How’s about we flashback to cave dwellin’ times? You follow me?” Barney does–we all do–but I must’ve missed the episode as a TV-besotted boy when an image of Betty back in the “the day” plays in Fred’s mind: “taut, muscular thighs from crouching in bushes all day; silky black hair, tangled and dry with dirt, sexy in some animal way…”
It’s probably good that Pebbles and Bam-Bam aren’t on the scene yet. But no doubt about, Betty’s a babe, a real “Betty.” But which Betty truly epitomizes the embodiment of Bettyhood?: the one in The Flintstones, or the Betty from the Archie comic books who naturally figures in the book’s “Betty and Veronica,” a story which—speaking of “gay old times”—outs Jughead and Moose.
Maybe that’s too much information. Just bear in mind, then, that Teenage Princess contains cultural multitudes in which both your security blanket and anxiety closet are exemplified and come with the territory. Also remember, please, my gift-giving tip. This isn’t your father’s Flintstones.