'B Book' sarcasm has an empty feeling

September 20, 1994|By Daniel Grant | Daniel Grant,Special to The Sun

Brian Randall is a smart-aleck, and "The B Book" is one extended, lushly designed wisecrack in the guise of a performance art book.

The book has the look of a pre-talkie movie, as alternating pages contain a still image (a colorfully photographed set, formed of collaged elements, with actors in costume) next to a page containing a character's statement or a small piece of narrative. In fact, there is a considerable amount of borrowing of noted film images in "The B Book," including "Metropolis," "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Wall Street," although the overall look owes more to magazine advertising and music videos.

That is rightfully so, as Mr. Randall celebrates disposable images while he appears to comment on these things -- a paradox we may have thought was left behind in the 1980s. We read and look at a morality tale about greed and overreaching with solid gold suns, columns, skyscrapers and statues, richly colored banners, King Tut tops and parasol skirts, shiny cans and brightly twinkling stars. Art isn't supposed to look dated, but "The B Book" looks like a find out of a 10-year-old time capsule.

Glib, David Letterman-style sarcasm fills every page of images and (largely) rhyming text, as we follow the child Miss B through her day, imagining a world that is better than her own.

"There goes Dad/ off to the company./ He's not the boss./ He says Yes-Yes a lot," our heroine laments as her father rushes off to work, leaving the house that is identical to all those around it. She decides to be her own boss, starting companies that sell everything and employ everyone, making her incalculably rich: "Cars, trucks, planes galore./ More! More! More! More!" In effect, she becomes boss of the planet. "Citizens! Citizens!/ I'm raising your taxes 200%."

The book's best point is its stylish send-ups of advertising images, such as the B hair-dos (hair done up in variations of the letter "B"), the B company logo and the B sports car.

Costumes, makeup and sets become ever more elaborate as B's success grows, and one may be reminded of singer Michael Jackson in his Sergeant Pepper-type outfits of the mid-1980s. And, like many 1980s tales of instant riches and dramatic crashes, B returns to her waking life with greater (mock) realism and acceptance. A weary dad replaces Auntie Em in this snickering update of "The Wizard of Oz."

Beyond the sarcasm and allusions is an essential nihilism -- everything is style, substance is nonexistent or vicarious -- that undermines the playfulness. Brian Randall preaches to those who already take nothing seriously. The images and story might have been better if they were part of a music video rather than a book: Perhaps the second edition of "The B Book" will contain a soundtrack.

Mr. Grant writes frequently about the arts. He lives in Amherst, Mass.


Title: "The B Book"

Author: Brian Randall

Publisher: Warner Books

Length; price: 96 pages, illustrated; $22.95

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