A CERTAIN STYLE The Art of the Plastic Handbag, 1949-59 Selected and edited by Robert Gottlieb and Frank Maresca Photographs by Edward Shoffstall And Frank Maresca. Knopf. $35
HERE IS today's news: Just as you begin to think that the world has come to the end of its rope in terms of weirdness; that is, that nothing more can surprise you in terms of spookout, untold, chicken-bone weirdness, here comes a coffee table book that lengthens that rope with one more loony loop. Here is a solemn, serious gift book collection of -- I don't know how to go on with this -- fancy color photographs of plastic purses. Now, listen. This book review is being written in Topanga Canyon, in the far, Far West of this country. Why? Because the collection of plastic purses here belongs mostly to Robert Gottlieb, who also wrote the introduction. Robert Gottlieb, editor of The New Yorker and, for 19 years before that, head of Alfred A. Knopf, certainly America's most prestigious publishing house.
Plastic purses aside, doesn't it seem strange, doesn't it take even the word weird back a whole giant step to its original meaning of "fateful destiny," that it falls to an obscure lady in West-Coast Topanga Canyon (home of hippies, beehives, right-wing maniacs, aura-readers and even Charles Manson for a while) to get to tell the most august arbiter of American East-Coast style that he's nuts, cuckoo-head, out of his gourd and seriously mistaken about these plastic purses?!
Mr. Gottlieb, somebody should have discouraged you from this project. It's all right to have your own collection of over 500 plastic purses; it's fine, in fact. A person as dignified as you are should have an outlet of some kind. But I have to tell you (and I can tell you, since I'll never be published by Knopf and certainly never in a million years by The New Yorker) that this book takes the concept of "silly" way on out to the cosmic level. It's not even the purses that do it. It's your introduction, so full of solemn scholarship: "It was about that time that Harry Senzer left Associated Plastics and went to work for a manufacturer called Rialto, who soon brought out its first plastic model . . . By this time, Rialto's major rivals -- Llewellyn (makers of Lewsid Jewels), the elegant Wilardy (originally Handbag Specialties), Myles, Maxim, Florida Handbags, and Patricia of Miami -- were also experimenting with materials, colors, shapes, designs, ornaments, and manufacturing methods." A sentence like that, Mr. Gottlieb, calls all of contemporary American literary culture into question. The king of Knopf's prose style reads like a bad term paper? What have we been doing all these years? When we subscribe to The New Yorker, to what, exactly, are we subscribing?
It doesn't matter. The wonder of weird American life is that this book will probably sell quite a few copies. Malice comes alive during the holiday season and, speaking personally, I'd like to see a lot of people get this book for a "present." Some in-laws I know. Everyone who's ever snubbed me could probably use a copy. Everyone (and I've met quite a few in my trips to New York) who's ever lectured me on the sterility of West-Coast cultural life. I might even buy a copy for my ex-husband -- no, that would be too mean. But I'm sure that the dark thoughts that come with winter will inspire many a purchase. Sure, too, that many a Manhattan inhabitant will rush out obediently to scour the market for plastic purses.
It beats me. I can't spend any more time on this. I've got to get back to something serious, like hypnotizing chickens or Kirlian photography.
Carolyn See's new novel, "Making History," will appear next year.