Queen Elizabeth I’s lead-laced makeup very likely killed her. Vibrant red lipstick is made from the shells of crushed bugs. The long-stemmed, tight-petalled roses everyone likes to receive on Valentine’s Day were bred with radioactive gamma rays. Ambergris, used to cut the sweetness of floral scents, is a sticky, black solid retrieved from the rectum of sperm whales. “The foulness whispers below the prettiness,” writes Katy Kelleher in her fascinating look into the tangled, sometimes ugly history of our most desired consumer artifacts, The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Essays on Desire and Consumption. “We want to smell intoxicating, and truly intoxicating things are often a little bit nasty.”
Most people are not inclined to admit to themselves, as they get ready for a night out at the opera, or a Jenny Lewis concert, that they are dabbing their neck or wrists with a product that carefully mimics animal stink. But Kelleher, who often writes for the Paris Review, is the guiltiest of aesthetes, an Oscar Wilde with hang-ups. Raised in Los Alamos by her nuclear physicist father, she suffered, like many teens, in pursuit of beauty — the cigarettes, the caffeine pills, the self-harm, the self-piercings — and now wonders if the suffering isn’t, in some way, the point. “Beauty is sharp, it is intense, and it comes at a cost,” she writes. “Whenever you find something unbearably beautiful, look closer and you’ll see the familiar shadow of decay.”
At first the book seems like it’s going to be a guilt trip. There are chapters linking cowrie shells to slavery; De Beers diamonds to the arms trade; Indian silk to bonded child labor. But Kelleher, a proud owner of 20 mascaras — her lashes are her best feature, she admits — knows that perfect consumer morality is unattainable. “I have tried but I can’t make myself care about silkworm death,” she writes, and is not above a Carrie Bradshaw-like breeziness when addressing, say, the “overall bummer vibe” of the Dark Ages. She likes the luscious gore of Caravaggio, the wilting tulips of the Dutch, and her chapter on the strange animal fats and clumps of funk that make up our favorite perfumes is the best in the book. “Animal products are the antiheroes in this drama — even when you hate them, you still, just a little, love them.”
If anything, she could have taken this theme for an even bigger spin in the art world. There was an entire movement, the Decadents, that sprang up towards the end of the 19th century to find the beauty in ugliness and the ugliness in beauty. Kelleher strangely overlooks them, although she gets Edgar Allan Poe (“The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world,” he once wrote) and the craze for sickly-looking, consumptive maidens that sent the Romantics into such raptures. “It wasn’t that the illness made them beautiful, but the loss made them precious,” she perceptively writes.
Kelleher’s brand of consumer tristesse would go over big in France, you feel, where big-name philosophes like to meditate on the small pleasures in life — the smaller, the better. “How is it possible to be that heavy with so much shameless, lavish nothingness?” French writer Philippe Delerm asks of watermelons in his new book of essays, Second Star. A follow-up to his massively successful La Première Gorgée de Bière (“The First Sip of Beer”), a roundup of 21st century pleasures — shelling peas, banana splits, newspaper at breakfast — that sold more than 1.3 million copies in France, the new book features a similarly tender, witty string of observations on everything from the “obliging suppleness” of clementines, to rebellious shopping carts (“You think you’re driving it, but in fact, it’s driving you”), to the murky allure of the mojito (“evokes the charms of a damp lagoon”) to a “No, after you…” game of Snap on the sidewalk (“You’re forced to advance: she steps aside, she has won…”).
It’s all very French. If the book were American, it would have a subtitle boasting of some grand thesis offering readers a competitive edge — How the Small Things in Life Can Make a Big Difference! — but Delerm’s book remains stubbornly dainty. Therein lies the charm of observations on the horrors of not getting served in restaurants (“Not getting served is one thing. Seeing that others can see you’re not getting served is something else again”), the little dance you do when folding sheets with your spouse (“one of you steps back, opposite the other, as for a pavane”), or the sight of a man ostentatiously palming his steering wheel (“stronger, more relaxed, cleverer, faster than you… It’s James Bond parallel parking”). If this book were a scent, it would be a classic eau de toilette — citrus, bergamot, ambergris — and the ads would feature a digitally resuscitated Umberto Eco, sat curbside at the Café de Flore in Paris, threading observations of his fellow diners into quietly pleasing, exactingly precise pensées. Eau de philosophe.
It’s harder than it looks. Any fool can volley but it takes a Federer to deliver a perfectly disguised drop shot. Lorrie Moore’s new novel, I Am Homeless If This is Not My Home, is all perfectly disguised drop shots. It’s a slim tale — part ghost story, part meditation on grief and the maddening persistence of old flames — buoyed with Moore’s characteristic mix of levity, gravity, melancholy, and wit. “You have to be actually dead not to see someone looking at their phone,” notes the book’s protagonist Finn, a recently suspended high school teacher, driving over the Ohio-Kentucky state line with his old flame Lily, who recently committed suicide and now sits, covered in soil, in the front seat of Finn’s Subaru, teasing him, flirting with him, arguing with him as she did when she was still alive: “When it came to Lily, he believed only in beauty and doom and moderate doom-prevention measures.” This ex really is ghosting him.
If you want something more substantial to sink your teeth into, you could do far worse than to try Tom Hanks’s first novel, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece, which pulls off the very Hanksian trick of being both sharp-as-a-tack and ambrosially good-hearted at one and the same time — “acerbic but not cynical,” as someone says of the book’s movie producer heroine, Allicia Mac-Teer. Allicia is being ferried to production on a big-budget superhero franchise shooting in North Valley, California, when she notices that her driver, Ynez Gonzalez Cruz, is a whizz at no-fuss problem solving, juggling three jobs, child-care commitments, and the task of ferrying Allicia smoothly around town. Having been plucked from the front desk of the Garden Suites Inn many years ago after securing hotshot movie director Bill Johnson a frozen yogurt with sprinkles on top late one night, Allicia knows a good thing when she sees one. “Bill Johnson is going to love you once he knows your name,” she assures Ynez.
On such matters do the great cosmic forks in the plot of Hanks’s novel hinge. Ynez is soon on payroll, fetching coffee and learning firsthand about the Blur, the Distorted Emotional Continuum, and other deep, quantum mysteries of the moviemaking universe. I don’t think I’ve even seen the complex dynamics of the lucky break broken down as entertainingly as they are here. It’s like Pynchon without the paranoia. The book features all the figures you might want of a Hollywood novel — an eccentric director-auteur who pounds out his scripts on an antique typewriter with a loud bell to pierce his “ferocious laser-like concentration,” a callow male star who wants to chew gum and insert the line “Here’s you answer! What was the question?” randomly into the script — but Hank’s true focus is further down the food chain, on all the gofers, fetchers, and fixers who keep the whole shebang rolling.
What do these people have in common besides a lucky break? Simple. They turn up on time and they solve more problems than they create, thus ensuring a near vertiginous ascent in an industry clogged with problem-makers, crybabies, jerks, train wrecks, and drama queens. Someone who can secure you frozen yogurt with sprinkles on top is gold. Hanks has clearly spent a lot of time marveling over his own good fortune and observing the cockeyed meritocracy keeping him aloft. Every character is lit from within by a spark of genuine curiosity and keenly observed with a sympathetic, sanguine eye. There are long-established novelists — the kind that win literary prizes and command front-page review space in the New York Review of Books — who struggle to do that.