(This review contains copious spoilers: if you intend to read the novel yourself, proceed with caution. We're posting it as a blog since it's not strictly music-related, despite being written by a prominent musician. Now read on!)
Joining the vast array of musicians-turned-novelists (wait, what?), Davey Havok of AFI fame throws his hat into the ring with this, his first book. Pop Kids is inspired by "pop stars, fashion models, celebrities, internet porn, social networking, reality TV, sex, drugs and vegan banana bread", and stars a cast of teenagers with dubious nicknames.
It's always a bold move when artists make the jump from one medium to another, and personally I've always treated the move with a little suspicion, like when Michael Jordan reinvented himself as a baseball player after his first retirement. It's not always a given that talents in one area translate to similar skills in another, and I'm not entirely sure this is the case with Pop Kids.
The first thing that hits you about this novel is the sheer amount of branding. Within the first few pages I was left wondering if the product placement was intentional: McQueen, iPhone, San Pellegrino, Hello Kitty and others are names that occur almost as much as those of the protagonists. Maybe this is Havok's way of highlighting the brand-obsessed youth of today and the commercialised culture that dominates the LA scene, but it becomes particularly wearing as the novel plays on.
Then you have the characters: rarely can I remember reading a book with this many unlikeable creations. It's not that they're all obnoxious ciphers, but mostly that they're paper-thin and two-dimensional, to the point where I could barely summon up the energy to remember who was who after yet another exhausting chapter of references to "MK", "Score", "Lynch" and other self-created nicknames (do you know anybody who successfully made their own nickname work?). The protagonist's constant references to veganism and straight edge were both twee and proselytising in equal measures: either we get saccharine lines like "a fresh, locally baked low-fat cranberry scone from Cherie Cherie is waiting for me in the breadbox", or we get preachy asides like "my guests begin poisoning their minds and bodies [with alcohol]". Havok has said in promotional material that Score, the lead character, is not meant to represent the author, but it's hard to not take this view the more these references are shoehorned in.
An unaddressed issue with Score's prominent opposition to alcohol is his nonchalance when it comes to taking advantage of the drunken state of the girls he's sleeping with: "Gross. Wine is just unacceptable. [...] the alcohol could encourage a second round of activities". Perhaps this is just to make a point of the contradictions and confusions of being a teenager, but it still felt like an ugly trait in a character knowing Havok's hardline stance on alcohol.
Similarly, there's a scene midway through where Score, who makes constant references to "Moz" in place of "God", and whose brother's beloved Smiths t-shirt is a prominent plot element, has to go and google Johnny Marr to find out who he is. While Havok is quick to address the "mortification" of his lead character, it feels quite hard to swallow: a huge Smiths fan treating Morrissey as his deity who's never heard the name Johnny Marr before? Giving Havok the benefit of the doubt and assuming he's using this to make another point about the vapid, bandwagon-jumping hipster crowd, all this serves to do is to make the protagonist even more obnoxiously unlikeable.
"I awake to her opulent gaze. In here, here eyes have wildly waxed to an almost golden hue".
- Pop Kids
Characters aside, the actual text of the novel is another difficult challenge. Passages are littered with purple prose, with a highlight being this gem: "I awake to her opulent gaze. In here, here eyes have wildly waxed to an almost golden hue". Without playing the literary snob card, this kind of prose is the sort of thing written by people who really want to call themselves "writers", believing that overly-flowery language and clever reappropriation of obscure adverbs marks them out as a modern-day Wilde. In spoken word readings by Havok from the novel, these passages come alive a little and are granted depth and feeling by the singer's rich, deep voice. On paper, though, they feel overwrought and mood-breaking.
One thing that has to be addressed is the fairly poor attention to detail when it comes to proofreading the text. This is a first edition so of course there are errors that go unnoticed, but the sheer amount of misspellings and poor grammar become hard to ignore as you read: "security breech" was one of my favourites, but there were plenty of references to people: Vanessa "Hudgins", Miley "Sirus", "Agnes Dean" (I presume Agyness Deyn), "heroine" (meaning the drug). Similarly, there's flagrant apostrophe abuse too: "the Hugh's classic" (referring to John Hughes' The Breakfast Club), "Dad make's fresh pesto", and perhaps worst of all, a reference to the musical, "Cat's". Nobody's perfect and errors happen but this doesn't help the feeling that the book is a bit of a vanity project, with little strict editing that it could've benefited from.
The part I've left till last to discuss is the plot. That's because it's by far the least prominent part of the novel: there barely is one. There are seventy chapters in this book. Seventy. But barely anything happens for any of them. There are so, so many copious sex scenes that I genuinely don't want to even contemplate the topic for at least the next week. Had I known before picking this up that it would've been a kind of underage scene kid version of Fifty Shades of Grey I wouldn't have bothered. Constant euphemisms around "glittering joy" or "French dressing" (semen) or "my Producer" and "production house" (penises) make these some of the most awkward and cringeworthy sex scenes ever, not helped by their repetitive frequency. It seems like every other chapter has a girl giving Score an unexpected blowjob in a cinema projection room, or an all-out orgy of seventeen-year-olds watching communal porn. I honestly found myself gritting my teeth as yet another sex scene came up, wondering if I could just skip the chapter.
The story revolves around these illicit "Premieres", which start off as underground film screenings and quickly devolve into free-for-all swingers' clubs made up of local teenagers and even one of their teachers. There's also a somewhat pointless subplot which sees local churches mysteriously burning down, but this is spoilered almost from the opening words as we see the protagonist burning down the cinema at the "end" of story, leaving little mystery as to who was burning down the churches, too. This attempt at Pulp Fiction-esque non-linear narrative is poorly rendered: the novel ends without a clear circular reference back to this point meaning I had to re-read the prologue chapter again to remind myself what happened.
I had expected a grand denouement: there's an unexplained murder (or is there?) and nothing seems to come of it, and we never hear whether Score gets implicated for his presumed role in burning down public buildings. The closest we get is a moment where our hero is hauled into the principal's office, but manages to come out of it unscathed and unchallenged. I genuinely wanted to see him brought down and made to own up to his illicit activities, which probably says something about my weariness with the whole thing by this point. Honestly, the book could've been half its length and still wouldn't have made much of its weak story. I finished the book feeling no warmth toward any of the characters, no interest in what they did next, and a strong desire not to see the words "San Pellegrino", "faded vintage tee" or "oral joy" again for the rest of my life.
We know there's a sequel coming up (or at least other books by Havok). I can say with conviction that I won't be reading it unless some serious editing takes place next time. This smacks too much of self-indulgence: the plot is dull and almost in the background; the characters aren't well-observed and lack any depth; the writing is sloppy and overblown. There are some interesting moments (the repeated, obscure references to moths filling Score's mouth and escaping at inopportune times is genuinely interesting and creative) but these are forced into the background by the loud, dumb sex scenes and their spinoff dramas.
In Havok's defence, he's hardly positioning the novel as a piece of classic literature or everyone-must-read-this mainstream bestseller. It's clearly aimed at an underground/alternative audience with familiarity with the subject matter. Havok's press interviews suggest he's written the book to try to imagine what his youth would've been like in the age of smartphones, the internet and social networking. I therefore expected intelligent and cutting portrayals of disposable culture, empty pop culture sentiment and youthful obsession. Instead, it just doesn't quite manage to make any profound point or statement: it presents some 2D characters and a brief look at their privileged lives, tries -- and fails -- to set up a compelling plot, and then strings these things out like paper dolls, baldly demonstrating that there's almost no substance or glue holding them together. We don't get any sense of something being explored or revealed, except that teenagers sometimes put private stuff on the public internet. We don't feel like the modern sense of blasé, seen-it-all-before attitude has any real impact or meaning. We don't learn why we should care about anything that happens in the text.
Much of the sex scenes feature men urgently pleasuring themselves before finally dumping a wad of "joy" on a couch for someone to clean up later. This feels like an apt metaphor for Pop Kids: masturbatory, self-indulgent, tacky and in need of a cleanup.
Score: 4 / 10
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