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Wednesday, 10 October 2007 00:00

An undefined culture gets its own guide

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Emo. Emo. Emoooooo.

Occasionally the word (pronounced, I believe, I-moo) pops up on the Internet or jumps out of some conversation overheard on the street, snagging the ear and eye, but I keep ignoring it. The word and concept belong to a younger generation; wireless Internet and YouTube send me off the edge of the world, and so I was glad to give the word a pass.

Then in the library last week I came across Everybody Hurts: An Essential Guide to Emo Culture (Harper Collins, 2007). Conjured up by Leslie Simon and Trevor Kelley, two writers at Alternative Press magazine, Everybody Hurts features observations on fashion, the Internet, music, movies, books, and even eating habits in teaching readers “what it means to be emo in the present tense.”

Simon and Kelley line up a formidable array of zest and humor in describing different facets of emo. Everybody Hurts offers pages of emo fashions, ranging from Frat Emo to Christian Emo to Trustafarrian Emo. The “Emo Hair Guide” offers illustrated examples of hair styles ranging from “The Reverse Faux-Hawk” and the “Hasidic” for boys to “The Zelda” and “The Side Mullet” for girls. (Simon and Kelley use the terms “boys” and “girls,” which seems to say that emo lacks an “in your face” feminist side.)

Included in Everybody Hurts are reviews of emo Web sites, blogs, and online communities like myspace.com and friendster.com. There are reviews of movies that appeal especially to the emo crowd: “Amelie,” Will Farrell’s “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “The Royal Tenenbaums”, and a dozen other films.

Since emo is often associated with music, Simon and Kelley offer numerous reviews. Here your reviewer is too ignorant to comment except to say that he was pleased that emo musicians often favor literature as a good source for the names of their bands and songs (Hawthorne Heights, As I Lay Dying, and Gatsbys (sic) American Dream are just a few of these bands).

Simon and Kelley also move beyond the media to look at emo eating habits and emo restaurants and clubs around the country. They even include a check list for aging emos so that they’ll know when they’ve moved into adulthood.

Despite all this information about the emo life, however, Simon and Kelley have trouble defining an emo. They come closest perhaps when they write that emo is still a kind of music, sure, but more than anything, it’s a state of mind. It’s a place where people who don’t fit in — but who long to fit in with other people who don’t fit in — come to find solace, and its resident ideology is something that those within the scene take very seriously.

They go on to describe core emo values: depression, empathy, faith (a belief in carrying on rather than a religious faith), non-athleticism, and effortlessness. They label Jane Eyre, Holden Caulfield, Buddy Holly, and Dobie Gillis as examples of historical and fictional characters who might fit the emo scene today. Also providing evidence of emoism are people who love some combination of Red Bull Energy Drinks, iPods, and a fondness for Japanese cars.

Since it is apparently impossible to define emo as we might define a Methodist or a Rotarian, Simon and Kelley have elected to paint an impressionistic portrait of an emo. They do a fine job with their verbal brushes, and we are indeed left with a vision of what emo is.

It’s difficult to believe that emo will have a shelf life much longer than this book. Movements this vague tend to fade away. What will probably occur with emo is that the movement will eventually blend into another movement, enfold itself, and become quietly absorbed in the culture as have some other fads from the past. Everybody Hurts may serve less as a guide to emo than as a gravestone.

•••

Sometimes a book we love is like the seventh-grader we had a crush on so long ago. The passion at the time was intense — our beloved’s every words, every glance, every move became topics of vital interest to us. Then we moved away and lost sight of each other, and our memory dims until finally this vision is all but extinguished.

And then something happens — a chance encounter, a dream, a wisp of memory soft as breeze in summer, and we feel the old emotions come alive like banked coals suddenly ablaze.

The language here is probably too strong for my feelings toward a book, yet when I saw The Paris Review Interviews: Vol. I (Picador, 2006) sitting on a library shelf, all the excitement that I’d felt on first reading a collection of Paris Review interviews jumped to life. Here were some of the interviews I had pondered so deeply back when I was in my early 20s, the words of Hemingway and Eliot, Vonnegut and Bellow, West and Didion back when all of writing and writers were still so fresh and lovely to me.

I checked out the volume, of course, and brought it home and poured a drink and opened the book. I didn’t quite know what to expect. Many of the interviews and writers are the same that I had read 30 years ago, but I myself had changed. I wondered how the writing and the interviews would seem to me, whether my early love of this series and I had grown apart, whether the romance had died.

I am delighted to report that the spark was still there, that if anything my love for these interviews had deepened over the years. Here was Rebecca West, still acerbic as ever, only now I could laugh with her rather than take her too seriously. Here was Papa, still so intense, still wanting to meet all challengers, and yet more gentle than I remembered, more generous toward some writers, more willing to admit how much he was influenced by them and by painters. Here is the fine interview of editor Robert Gottlieb in which his clients, his writers, remind us what once constituted a great editor in our country and why we need to have those editors back again.

If you’re new to the Paris Review interviews, this is a wonderful way to meet your favorite authors. If you’ve already read the interviews, let me recommend this volume anyway. Like me, maybe you’ll find that an old flame hasn’t lost all its fire.

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