A twisted look at the '80s

Monday Book Review

October 17, 1994|By Daniel Grant

THE B BOOK. By Brian Randall. Warner Books. 96 pages. Illustrated. $22.95. BRIAN RANDALL is a smart alec, 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, with alternating pages containing still images (colorful collages) adjoining pages of text, usually a character's statement or a brief narrative.

In fact, there is a considerable amount of borrowing from 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 advertisements and music videos. Rightfully so, as Mr. Randall celebrates disposable images while apparently trashing them too -- a paradox we may have thought was left behind in the 1980s.

We read a morality tale about greed and overreaching that is accompanied by pictures of columns, skyscrapers, statues, richly colored banners, King Tut tops and parasol skirts, shiny cans and brightly twinkling stars. "The B Book" looks like a find out of a 10-year-old time capsule.

Glib, David Letterman-style sarcasm spikes the (mostly) 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 A morality play with a twist.

rushes off to work, leaving the house that is identical to all those around it. In her mind, she starts and manages companies that sell everything and employs 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 percent."

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, make-up and sets become ever more elaborate as Miss B's success grows, which is vaguely reminiscent of singer Michael Jackson's meteoric rise of the mid-1980s in his Sergeant Pepper-type outfits. 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. 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.

Daniel Grant writes from Baltimore.

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