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How It Ends
Dan Collins
London: Jonathan Cape, 2003.
£10.00, 249 pages, IBSN 0-224-06927.

Steven Marc Jones
Liverpool John Moores University

 

In How It Ends, Dan Collins captures the spirit of the Western world in the twenty-first century, giving voice to the barely contained chaos throbbing beneath the gleaming surfaces of modern life. The apocalyptic feeling embodied in the title infuses the tacky, flashy modern landscape he describes with melancholy and suppressed desperation. The novel explores the texture of modernity, remorselessly exposing its flaws and quirks, illuminating the ways in which tough experiences warp and mould our lives. Collins evokes a landscape in which money is king, where humanity is reduced to the level of product. This is a world of polished facades and sleazy secrets, of lifestyle choices and deadly addictions. Relationships are subsumed into a ruthlessly mercantile world where individuals struggle to find their identities in an environment composed of product and shaped by the demands of fashion and saleability.

We see this world through the eyes of Lee Annis, an emotionally damaged beauty hungry for self-definition, who becomes a Las Vegas show girl, inventing herself as an object of titillation for the satisfaction of the appetites of strangers. The narrative voice is witty, deeply cynical and highly articulate, observing the world with a shrewdness and intelligence that, at times, suggests the voice of the writer and not the character. Such is her apparent intelligence that we begin to wonder who this woman really is! She’s a charismatic and engaging figure, in spite of her cynicism, warm despite her toughness. Essentially, in a world dominated by supply and demand, she recreates herself as a product to sell on the open market. Her choices lead to an early and ultimately disastrous marriage to Edward and an emotionally barren life of American shopping malls, MTV and wearying machismo. Her recollections of this time allow us to see how she has honed her persona into a kind of man-pleasing doll, while remaining inwardly cynical and manipulative. Collins cleverly maintains sympathy with the character by making these apparently unattractive qualities seem necessary for her very survival. This is a woman fighting for her place in a pitiless world so a tough exterior is necessary and, in an odd way, we’re on her side. Her few moments of real tenderness and connection are spent with her child, a poignant irony when we consider that she sacrifices this relationship, escaping her marriage in order to find freedom and a new path to finding herself.

At twenty-eight, Lee has found a kind of self-definition as part of Anaconda, the pop band she fronts alongside the sexually magnetic Billy. She has become the ultimate pop-culture product: a pop star. Collins wryly satirises the modern obsession with celebrity by allowing us deep inside the head of a pop culture goddess. By allowing us such a high degree of intimacy with life behind the mask of stardom, he is commenting upon the effects of fame with a pitiless eye. Fame allows Lee to bask in the adoration of millions of fans and temporarily escape her emotional demons. It brings a fleeting relief from the crippling lack of self-esteem we discern in her, adulation providing a panacea for her insatiable hunger for love and acceptance. Yet the charms of fame are short-lived and we find in Anaconda’s disintegration the disillusion that results from the satisfaction of superficial desires at the expense of real evolution. The material rewards of fame, however, are many. Collins explores the notion that superficial satisfaction is all that modern society offers. This is a well-trodden road. Everybody knows that stardom is short-lived and the pursuit of it brings most to grief in the end. Popular culture retells this story in a million ways from Sunset Boulevard to Madonna’s "Hollywood." We are painfully aware of the darkness at the heart of the American dream! Yet, in How It Ends, this clichéd landscape is seen afresh as Collins allows us an agonising intimacy with its dizzying highs and unbearable lows.

In this world of superficial interactions and unarticulated feelings, it’s hard to see where Lee’s emotional anchors are. Her relationship with Billy is a cornerstone of her psyche. This is an intense dynamic and appears to be one of the few areas of her life that goes beyond the superficial. Their stage performances seem to feed from this intensity and provide the creative energy for Anaconda. All is set to change, however, as Billy announces that he's about to marry "some faceless creature" and break up the band. The effects of this rupture are devastating, triggering Lee’s spiral into psychological chaos. During the ensuing summer, she becomes a nomad, travelling all over the world, seeking the fulfilment of confusing emotional hungers. Carrying the heavy burden of her fame and set adrift in an ambiguous ocean of fame and glamour, she indulges a self-destructive yearning for dangerous adventures. Unable to shake loose from the darkness and ambiguity of the past, she retreats into a rock 'n' roll wonderland of sex and drugs, and finds herself alone, her oldest friendships threadbare and devoid of substance. Gender is a major theme. It is clear throughout the narrative that Lee has a very jaundiced view of men: "The way their little minds work, transparent, twisting and turning through the same restricted options." So strong is this sense of suspicion towards men, that one wonders whether men are the reasons or her deep-seated neuroses. Despite this, she seems to cling to a belief in love, "wishing there were some men in the world that are not the men [she] always [meets]."

The theme of fame and its effects dominates. The narrative is haunted by the shades of Madonna and Diana and the celluloid flicker of other ‘goddesses’ is everywhere, their tragedies and empty triumphs providing a poignant counterpoint to Lee’s Story: "As if he believed for an instant that he really was sitting with Di, as if he really believed he had just fucked a princess." (173) She name-checks Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, expressing her perhaps subconscious need to invent herself in their image. This yearning to self-mythologize seems shrill and neurotic. The condition of celebrity and all its shimmering trappings is examined in a way that makes glamour seem tawdry and notoriety ridiculous. The novel echoes Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet in its evocation of the myth of celebrity but is altogether more brutal and iconoclastic. In Collins’s world, Women are valued for their beauty, packaged as commodities, deified, worshipped and then discarded. Collins is forcing us to question a society that values fame so highly, encouraging us to reflect on the quasi-religious but ultimately empty interchange between star and fan. He highlights the essentially unfulfilling nature of fame by showing us Lee in all her tawdry glory, needy and messed up in spite of having it all.

The narrative is darkly ironic and occasionally brutal, capturing the remorseless spirit of Western modernity. Collins uses rich, colourful language to evoke a world that is instantly and recognisably real yet has the heightened colours of a cartoon. The landscape of the novel is perfectly realised and provides a seamlessly convincing backdrop for Lee’s unravelling. Collins's imagination is cinematic in its attention to detail and as a reader, we trust him totally. The writing is powerful, the use of language rich and inventive. There are some wonderful descriptions of the squalor of Lee’s life. The descriptions are vivid, heavily detailed and absolutely convincing, bringing out the voyeur in all of us. Collins has a keen eye for detail and depicts intimate situations with a shocking accuracy: "The drummer smoothing his hardly prepossessing cock, petting it lightly as one might a dozy snake." (171). Collins refuses to sacrifice lyricism in his quest for the real. Occasionally, he overworks his material, producing elaborate and obscure sentences that break the flow of the narrative: "Farther […] all this continental drift, reversely long sluice of night flight fending against the swing of time. (81) Overall, he gets it right, drawing the reader into his seamless imaginary world.

This is an entertaining and compelling read. Collins satirises modern life with chilling precision and dark, ferocious humour, describing an individual spinning chaotically out of control with verve and energy. It is a novel about identity, about a woman’s torturous journey towards self-realisation. Beneath its glittering veneer, we can discern an old struggle, the echo of an ancient question: who am I? When Lee says, in the middle of another loveless fuck, "This isn’t me," (183) the line has a resonance which echoes far beyond an in-car sexual scenario and touches on the novel’s central theme: in a remake/remodel world where personae can be picked up and discarded, where image is all, how do we understand what we really are. Is there anything beneath the surface?

In How It Ends, we hear an existential cry lost in torrents of banality and swept away in a cascade of unnecessary product. Hidden amongst all the superficiality, all the ruthless inhumanity, beats a human heart. The human need to connect with others is what makes this novel more than a mad helter-skelter ride through the underbelly of the pop scene. Here, embodied in the bewilderment of a woman who has apparently achieved so much, is the paradox of modern life: that success and the fulfilment of sensual desires do not solve the fundamental questions that life presents. Lee Annis is a star. She knows what it is to be adored by millions yet is a fragmented collection of unaddressed neuroses. She remains damaged despite benefiting from all of the solutions modern Western civilisation can offer. There’s a hopelessness in this but also a flash of keen insight. The novel ends on an ambivalent note. The revelations about the nature of her relationship with Billy are shocking but somehow appropriate. We can always rely on Lee to push the limits, probe the taboos. We like her enough to crave her redemption, to see her lifted off this treadmill of glamour and sensation. Collins doesn’t allow us the satisfaction of a neat conclusion. Instead, Lee continues on her turbulent way. So how does it end? Does Lee Annis burn out, forced to rework her greatest hot until the lights go out and the applause fades? Will our sad, neon-drenched life-style planet choke on its own trivia? Collins conjures the new texture of apocalypse and gives it to us straight.



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