Jackie Collins' 16th novel -- the mystery is why so many millions are captivated

March 08, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Sex - from outset to ending. There is barely a page without it - overt acts, perverse acts, sexual allusions.

Beyond that, everything is ravishingly glamorous - people, clothing, jewelry, restaurants, houses, automobiles. It's an encyclopedia of status toys. The names of the characters are - well, purposeful: Harry Solitaire, Lara Ivory.

The sentences are very short, active voice, declarative. Very few dependent clauses. Frequent dashes. Ellipses are scattered as pepper on egg white. Four lines is a long paragraph. Most are two or three.

The scenes run fast and frantic. Happenings crackle. Lots of them. None is intricate.

The primary voice is an anonymous narrator. It is as salty in vocabulary and as direct in tone as the voices of the main characters. Few of those can get through more than two sentences without employing, as emphatic punctuation, the gerundive form of the most common Anglo-Saxon verb for the procreative act.

Incest occurs roughly with the frequency and intensity of the common cold. There seem no limits to sexual participation. Ten years old is not too young. There are no other inhibitions - not gender, blood relationship, social status, income, attractiveness, marital status.

Everybody has a dirty little secret, or a dirty big one, most often. Or two or three. Including, in some cases, where they came from, how they got there, and who was messily slaughtered in the process. Most of these hideous pasts were violent and sexually perverse.

That's the good stuff, the positive side.

Commodity fiction

What is this?

From time to time, curiosity rises about mass commodity fiction - the books of Jackie Collins, others who top the best-seller lists. They are not literary fiction and don't pretend to be. Their markets are clearly well-established, and they are rarely reviewed in newspapers or magazines. They seem mysteriously spontaneous, like truffles in orchards or dust balls under beds. Most of the people involved in the world of books have no idea what is in them.

What is?

I am not entirely sure. I have read samplings of the genre, if that is the proper term. Most recently, I have carefully read "Thrill," by Jackie Collins (Simon & Schuster, 479 pages, $25). The dust jacket records that Collins is "author of 16 provocative and controversial New York Times bestsellers. She lives in Beverly Hills, Calif." I don't doubt a word of that.

With very few reservations, I believe books to be a good thing, universally better, let's say, than watching reruns of TV sitcoms or counting automobiles from a highway overpass. Jackie Collins' work - at least "Thrill," which is the only one I have read - is relatively harmless. Its vulgarity and banality pale in the face of immense amounts of material available to any kid in America.

But I am continually - if mildly - fascinated by the question of why millions of readers are held fast by such trivial, artless, predictable drivel.

Do I condescend? Perhaps, but that is not what's in my heart or mind. I have read all sorts of trash in my life, will read more, and often clutter precious days with other junk. But what holds fast in my curiosity is that there is a world of simple entertainment fiction around - crime novels, "historical" fiction, a dozen others - that is no harder to follow than this stuff. That alternative is not dificult at all, and - in my opinion - is much more entertaining, engaging, imaginative - and nourishing of fantasy or mind or glands.

If you're going to pig out on popcorn (yes, I have and shall #F again), why not have it fresh, with a bit of butter and salt?

Instead, in "Thrill," the characters are flat, two-dimensional. Their purposes do not include being in any way complex, or human, or capable of growth or change or self-insight.

Lara Ivory, the heroine, is said to exude "pureness and beauty," "incomparable freshness and staggering beauty." Thus she is defined, but never tellingly described. As with other characters, Collins provides a sprinkling of visual details, but no memorable image. So goes the book. Lots of telling but no showing, no descriptive lilt.

The book is set in Hollywood. There would have been opportunity to render the making of movies interesting, to play out some of the techniques, the experiences to which Collins obviously has access. But there is not a page, not a sentence, from which the reader actually can learn anything.

Mild excitements

Ah, but the sex! But no. The bulk of the sexual-action passages have almost all the sensuality of changing a flat tire on an expressway shoulder at night: There is some attention to detail, a mild sense of risk and perhaps excitement, and it seems vaguely preferable to sitting alone in the dark.

Betrayal saturates these pages like sex. Most of the characters, with a couple of exceptions, are betrayed right back - a sort of carousel of vilenesses. These acts are piled on top of exploitation, which is the primary human transaction. Everybody's forever being used by or using somebody else, or both. The betrayals are usually for the blissful viciousness of it, beyond practical utility.

The devices of suspense are, well, evident. Hark the end of the seventh chapter:

"Lara Ivory - beautiful movie star. If people knew the real truth ...."

"If they only knew...."

(The italics are mine; ellipses are in the text.)

The book is not driven by empathizable motivation. It is not informative. The people are not believable. Perhaps that's the ugly secret: Hollow fantasy, safely distant from anything real in the life of any reader.

Conclusion?

About the ending, the less said the better.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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