Sunday, May 1, 2011

"Beauty Queens": A Disaster to Avoid

Satire, according to the World English Dictionary is a novel, play, entertainment, etc, in which topical issues, folly, or evil are held up to scorn by means of ridicule and irony.

Good satire can be seen in Max Barry’s Jennifer Government, Voltaire’s Candide, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and even Max Brook’s zombie epic World War Z. A great satire induces snickers and occasional guffaws, when the reader realizes that the character “so and so” is really similar to “that infamous CEO of that one company”, or when it is realized that “that ridiculous line” was really said by “this president”. Truly great satire mimics the real world in a way that takes away the horror of a moment and turns it into something not only comical, but also flips the event/person/quote/etc… into a rather intelligent comment on the world in which we live.

Beauty Queens, teen author Libba Bray’s (A Great and Terrible Beauty) newest novel, in a nutshell, is the story about a plane full of Miss Teen Dreamers (think Miss Teen USA) that crashes on a supposedly deserted island leaving the girls to fend for themselves. Of course the island isn’t what it seems—it’s really a secret base for “The Corporation” (think ultra-evil, world dominating conglomerate with political aspirations), complete with gun toting black shirts, an inactive volcano, and freaky, genetically mutated snakes. The girls are not what they appear either—although their true motives are all too plain to the reader. Throw in secret arms deals with terrorists, assassination attempts, and a boatful of reality TV teen pirates and you have the plot…what there is of it.

So is this satire? Bray sure thinks it is.

Unfortunately, despite it’s brilliant cover, Beauty Queens comes nowhere close to being an even halfway decent satire. It tries—very hard—to cover all of the bases; beauty pageants, feminism, the rights of indigenous people, transgenders, reality television, gun-toting former beauty queens (yes, the Sarah Palin digs are there in the form of character Ladybird Hope), race, sexuality, corporations, terrorism, capitalism, sex, stereotypes, self-image…the list could go on and on and on, unfortunately. Bray tries way too hard. She even includes footnotes and commercial breaks advertising (made-up) Corporation products, TV shows, and famous people. At first this tongue-in-cheek device is moderately humorous, but it gets old really fast. I think there were more nonsense footnotes here than there were useful ones in Steig Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

This book is just too all over the place to be entertaining. It begins so promisingly, with a great “Word From Your Sponsor” moment, but it ends there. The plot wobbles, the characters are annoying, and not just because they are beauty queens (I know someone would say that is a given, but I digress), but because Bray is trying to infuse too many politically correct/incorrect/obnoxious characteristics into each girl. I almost wanted them all to blow-up with the island (not a spoiler btw). The book is too frenetic, tries too hard to be relevant and funny at the same time, and the ending; an Animal House-like homage to characters’ futures is a nice touch, if a little cliché, but not enough of one to make this book readable.

Avoid, avoid! If you want satire please read one of the books listed above or try out Animal Farm, Catch-22, Syrup, Fool, hell, even Molière’s Tartuffe—just stay away from Beauty Queens!

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