- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

When creamy-skinned debutantes, moneyed, young celebutantes and an assortment of what Vanity Fair calls "society swans" are depicted in the magazine's glossy pages in an array of breast-clutching, nothing-but-eye-liner-wearing, leg-splayed poses, it must mean something. But what? The question continues to nag while one peruses a companion piece about teen-age socialite Paris Hilton, an heiress to the Hilton Hotel fortune. In a particularly enchanting photographic portrait taken at her grandmother's home in Beverly Hills, the lissome Miss Hilton wears what looks like a black string bag and fuchsia loincloth, her outstretched hands in matching fuschia fingerless gloves, one finger extended in that genteel way … only it is her middle finger.

Oh dear. If this is supposed to epater le bourgeois, someone should break the news to Vanity Fair and its rather gamy flock of long-necked lovelies that this stuff is about as shocking as a 2-year-old's temper tantrum. But that doesn't mean that what they have presented to us isn't worthy of some fairly serious consideration. In other words, what we are witnessing is more than a particularly bad attack of tastelessness. In this hefty offering to the recycling gods is yet another vivid illustration of how the boundaries of behavior have been eradicated from our increasingly disordered society.

That is, when a careless debutante, whose stomping grounds range from Paris to Palm Beach, chooses to affect and immortalize the look of the local Red Light District, something in society has changed in a profound way. But what? Is it us or them? Or is it simply the case that such attitudes and behaviors, once confined to the margins, have entered the mainstream?

A casual look around reveals that such affectations of the demimonde are by no means exclusive to the upper crust. A fall clothing catalogue from Bloomingdale's, for example, features the kind of prison-garb-inspired fashions for little boys that have been popular since gangsta-rap-style baggy pants came into vogue. Skimpy little dresses for skinny little girls appear in the sort of animal prints that seem more likely to seen on a streetwalker than a hop-scotcher. The fact that Bloomingdale's shoppers are eager to pay money to costume their children this way is just another indicator of how far into the center the behavioral fringe has penetrated.

A just-published novel, "The Royal Family," by William T. Vollmann, plays to this same mainstream sensibility of underworld chic. Mr. Vollmann, a respectfully regarded author with a cult-like following, has written an elephantine (780 pages) book about the world of prostitution in San Francisco that explores that old beat theme of transcendence through self-degradation in the most minute detail. Much of the writing is unprintable in a newspaper no doubt a source of its charm but suffice it to say, as one reviewer described it, the book is "a cornucopia of bleeding orifices, abscessed legs, crusted secretions and fetid genitals."

Sounds as if Mr. Vollman may actually find transcendence through repulsiveness. In any event, in what is known as a mixed review "an immense literary talent is on display" although "he leaves the saturated reader begging for surcease" the New York Times' Richard Bernstein summed up Mr. Vollmann's appeal. "Given how fashionable it is to be jadedly amoral in fiction today, to be transgressive (a word often used to describe Mr. Vollmann), 'The Royal Family' is probably less daring than it is chic, with the author not so much creating a new sensibility as catering to an established, vicarious middle-class bohemianism spiced by recreational drugs."

Less daring than it is chic. One way to look at this is to recognize the artificiality of both the genre and its devotees. That is, the "jadedly amoral fiction" business would seem to be as much a put-on as are the mannered positions affected by the Vanity Fair debs and celebs who have put on display no manners at all. Nonetheless, this latest brand of chic, so heartily consumed by that established, vicarious middle-class faux-bohemia faux-bos? is pretty tough, and even dispiriting, to have to paddle along with through the mainstream.

It has naturally fallen to conservatives to try to stem such effluvium, although all too many Americans have seemed to quake at the thought of shooing marginal behavior back to the margins. After all, that is where, historically, "The Royal Family" and its ilk have belonged inside a paper bag, under a counter, or through an unmarked door. Of course, by this late date, there seem to be no more margins, let alone unmarked doors. There is no fringe, no center, only flow. The question is, do we really want to go with it?



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