- Celebrity Ekphrasis
"The lights of the stage were like surgery lights," an imagined Michael Jackson thinks in Caroline Picard's timely and striking Psycho Dream Factory. Throughout this intense, often hypnotic collection, Picard applies her fine surgeon's eye to our celebrity-struck culture. Merging images and prose, Picard operates in her own desert dreamscape.
"I had a dream that was not all a dream," wrote literary celebrity Lord Byron, a quote which came to mind as I read/explored Picard's collection/collage. While Byron is not cited here, a wild array of "celebrities" through the ages do pop up in Picard's pop-culturized pages: from King of Pop "MJ" to literary cult star HD; from Dr. Dre to Woody Allen; from Marilyn Monroe to Helen of Troy.
Both an author and a visual artist, Picard concocts what Lily Robert-Foley calls in her introduction a "singular ekphrasis," a provocative mash-up of Picard's charged nightmarish narratives and her dreamy, more drolly disturbing artworks (which include "Angelina and child"—Angelina as in "Jolie"—as well as "MJ and Orion"). Those two titles give a clue to Picard's main and most effective method: combining in collage style mythic and/or historic material with contemporary pop-culture.
Thus, Victorian-era "mad-women" are juxtaposed with a college lecture referencing Britney Spears and with eerie imagined scenes of Marilyn Monroe examining a book of the mad-woman photos. This multi-layered narrative is illustrated in Picard's book by a stark grainy photo of Marilyn Monroe's California living room, circa 1962. What gives this story a beating heart is the way Picard is able to capture the ghostly yet eternally alive allure of an incandescent star like Monroe, "sleeping with her eyes open."
As I recently chanced to watch a young Marilyn Monroe steal her brief breakthrough scenes in "All About Eve," I was struck by the truth and beauty of Picard's haunting description of her imagined 'Marilyn': "While speaking her lines, she carries on a separate though simultaneous conversation with the camera through body language. The light seems to caress the curve of her neck."
Also edgy and effective are Picard's wry darkly comic imaginings of an aging Woody Allen "relishing contempt" as his child-bride "Soon-Yi" rattles about obliviously in their kitchen. The imagined Woody drifts amidst thoughts of Roman Polanski and J. Fernando Pessoa, as well as, more actively, a younger version of himself: a protege who causes Woody to be "Dopple-dangered."
In this multi-dimensional deadpan piece and throughout her unsettling, sometimes puzzling collection, Picard plays with what is (Nabokov said this word should always be encased in quotation marks) "real." Within the patently unreal world of celebrity, Picard deftly captures the larger-than-life self-consciousness of her characters with her knowing narrative voice. "In this story," the narration informs us, "Mr. Allen picks up the remote control." "Mr. Allen" himself reflects that he feels as if he is in a dream. "My actions are not entirely my own," the fictional director muses, "but I am more or less comfortable."
The reader, on the other hand, is seldom "comfortable" in Caroline Picard's psycho dreamscape. That of course is Picard's intent, but reading this collection straight through can be daunting. Picard's strongest card, I feel, is her collage method. The pieces that focus on only one narrative—a murky and mysterious summer camp drowning or a brutal car crash evoking the "last smells" of a young boy—are skillfully crafted but work less well to me than those narratives which overlap disparate voices and scenes.
Even the less gripping stories here, however, are told with intriguing narrative voices. Picard is a playful stylist who can manage a menacing effect simply from the placement of a period:
"Within this small, one-room shack. He felt like a giant."
Picard also enjoys dislocating her narratives in time, as when her mythic Penelope ponders her lot "from where she sat, in the past."
Such narrative sleights of hand suit Picard's primary...