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Art Attack

Target: Target; prose from poet Heaney; Costello's big break, Big If.



Design and Crime

(And Other Diatribes)

By Hal Foster

Verso, 170 pp., $23

Kim Hastreiter, editor/publisher Paper magazine (May 2002), inside the new Target store, Queens, New York: "I'm fascinated by Target. ... The merchandise in this store is not necessarily so sophisticated, yet Target's whole new image makeover of the past few years is making it a magnet for very creative, sophisticated folks. Everyone I know lately is Target-obsessed."

Murray Moss, designer/retailer, to interviewer Hastreiter in the same magazine, same issue, same Target: "In this store, you have a lot of big choices. Even if it's the same product, you feel you can pick the one from the whole multiple that you want. ... Even if you're buying a box of Tide, you can pick the box you want. That's really seductive. You get the feeling that they curate this."

Hastreiter to Moss: "Here are the Barbies!"

Moss to Hastreiter: "This is the best Barbie section I've ever seen. Look at how it's merchandised. ... Look at the three-piece Princess Tiara set. I'm buying this. ... This one's really good. It's the Barbie Color Curls Styling Head. ... On the package it says 'choking hazard.' Absolutely everything here says it's a choking hazard, have you noticed? Doesn't this look like a Jeff Koons?"

Exactly. Gag material. Because this is what we've come to: "very creative, sophisticated folks" practically wetting their pants over a Barbie doll (in multiples!), calling for comments from a Soho design guru (and owner of a three-piece Princess Tiara set) who's calling into comparison the overobvious non-art of Jeff Koons (another choking hazard). THEN calling all of it curated. How in the world Target isn't a target of Hal Foster's scrutiny in Design and Crime I have no idea.

Just as I have little idea half the time what Foster's talking about in this collection of essays, as when he writes in a chapter called, you guessed it, "Design and Crime," "Perhaps it is time to recapture a sense of the political situatedness of both autonomy and its transgression, a sense of the historical dialectic of disciplinarity and its contestations ... ."

Granted, the passage is taken out of context. But ... c'mon. Time to talk turkey:

Hal Foster is a professor of art and archaeology at Princeton, a co-editor of October magazine, and past author of Compulsive Beauty and The Return Of the Real. You maybe don't know art, but already you know you're in heavy-duty company. But heavy only if you are not: a former Situationist, a post-structuralist, a post-deconstructionist, a post-postmodernist, a disciple of Walter Benjamin, a champion of Rem Koolhaas, or former subscriber to Artforum (and preferably a subscriber in the summer of 1976, before that magazine moved to New York, before that magazine went to hell, art criticism went kaput, and art ... who the hell knows). Bonus points if you can tell a "reification" from an "imbrication" and extra credit if you can translate into Amer'cun Foster's pet phraseology, which runs from the "subtextuality of mnemonic afterimages" to the "museal dialectics of seeing."

I'm carping. I think. The book's handsome, handy design -- pocket size; heavy, super-slick paper stock; great, clean type; clean, if too few, reproductions -- is, and Foster's head and eye are, right where you want 'em, if you can understand him, and understand this: a critic who can rightly appraise and not fall for the media darling/architect of the day, Frank Gehry; who can rightly point and lead you to understand the "spectrality" of England's sculptor great, Rachel Whiteread; who can talk Baudelaire, Valéry, Proust, Wölfflin, Warburg, Panofsky, Riegl, Lévi-Strauss, Malraux, then Greenberg, Rosenberg, Fried, Rose, and Krauss as if they were old running buddies; and then write, within these mind- and eye-opening essays on architecture and art, this evidence of -- what's it? -- heart:

"This perpetual profiling of the commodity, of the mini-me [including the Barbie Color Curls Styling Head?], is one factor that drives the inflations of design. Yet what happens when this commodity-machine -- now conveniently located out of the view of most of us -- breaks down, as environments give out, markets crash, and/or sweat-shop workers scattered across the globe somehow refuse to go on?"

I would have liked more soundings from Foster on those who "refuse to go on," but his book's short. There's only so much time. And the time it'll take you to read Design and Crime two, three times and get something out of it is the time you'd spend one round reading whatever. Learn something, then, if and only that: that Tide-box bit above ... Whatever lasting contribution Andy Warhol made in the early '60s, he had Target beat and by 40 years. And you? You, 40 years on, get to pick the box! It's a big choice. It's the same choice. It's seductive. It's curated. Murray Moss says so. -- Leonard Gill

Finders Keepers:

Selected Prose 1971-2001

By Seamus Heaney

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 450 pp., $30

A better all-in-one guide through the realms of the poetical, the personal, and the political, you couldn't hope for, and a more sure-footed traveler through the territories of language, you'd be hard-pressed to find close at hand. Who's this who's got me gushing? Why, it's Seamus Heaney, esteemed poet of the bog, Irishman of the past and present, and, as is well proven in Finders Keepers, brilliant essayist.

In this wide-ranging collection of mostly poetry-focused prose published between 1971 and 2001, Nobel laureate Heaney certainly reinvigorates the critical discourse that often misses the point of poetry. By ducking out of the typical journal's miasma of self-consciously erudite pontification and holding fast to his mind's own solid ground, he cuts to the bone of the work of such architects of verse as Robert Burns, Zbigniew Herbert, Sylvia Plath, William Butler Yeats, Philip Larkin, Joseph Brodsky, and T.S. Eliot with remarkably revealing results. Heaney's easy, meticulous consideration of every imaginable facet of a work -- style, musicality, meter, rhyme, voice, dialect, root, conscience, emotion, et cetera -- while bearing in mind the particular political disposition or psychological aim or half-hidden ulterior motive of its author is nothing less than astonishing. He makes both powerful, believable arguments and a quick believer of the reader and, at the same time, what seem to be utterly unexpected discoveries of his own. It's beautiful confirmation of what Flannery O'Connor meant when she remarked, "You don't know what you've said until you've said it."

It is Heaney's exploratory character that marks this collection's every piece and makes it a joy to read. But should we expect anything less from a poet? Just as Heaney broaches the threshold of his own work with a cautious, determined pen, he applies a wise, careful eye to the work of others, ingratiating himself into the welcome company of the reader. But don't let all this talk of poetry scare you off. Some of the most enjoyable prose in Finders Keepers is autobiographical, deepening our understanding of Heaney as a working artist who still puts his shoes on one at a time, who at one time was a country boy spouting naughty rhymes and songs, who grew up in a lovely country, who relishes the history of his land, and who communicates it all with an earthbound majesty that can leave you thunderstruck. -- Jeremy Spencer

Big If

By Mark Costello

Norton, 320 pp., $24.95

An out-of-nowhere surprise, Big If is the kind of highly original and exciting novel that can instantly crystallize a literary reputation even though its author, Mark Costello, has no reputation to speak of -- at least not yet. His only previous novel is the obscure Bag Men, which he wrote under the pseudonym John Flood.

Nevertheless, Big If is an ambitiously conceived, intelligently written novel that nicely captures the paranoid atmosphere of the United States as it enters the 21st century. A perfectly pitched combination of sharp satire and generous characterization, it is one of the best -- and perhaps one of the most important -- novels since Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.

The bulk of Big If centers on a team of Secret Service agents assigned to protect the vice president during a New Hampshire primary, but that set-up doesn't make this a political or legal thriller. While the book does contain high-stakes suspense and behind-the-scenes details, Big If is more substantial than any mass-market beach read but just as much fun, thanks to Costello's fluid prose, keen humor, and wide-eyed observations.

The vice president's protection team constitutes a makeshift dysfunctional family, its members distracted by their lives away from the job. A former Los Angeles beat cop, lead agent Gretchen Williams has worked her way up in order to provide a safe environment for her teenage son, who resents her long absences. Lloyd Felker and Tashmo (everyone refers to him by one name only) were both on Ronald Reagan's protection team during the heyday of the Secret Service, when the team was more like a fraternity. Some 20 years later, Felker has lost himself in the theory of protection and Tashmo is a recovering womanizer with a shaky marriage and a past that is, naturally, coming back to haunt him.

But Costello wisely focuses on Vi Asplund, the youngest member of the team. Grieving for her dead father and uneasy with her new assignment, she is unlike any other heroine in contemporary fiction, and her epiphany at the end of the novel -- which Costello understates to great effect -- is especially poignant. Ultimately, she is the book's triumph.

While Big If is fascinated with the practices and theories behind the Secret Service, its scope is much broader than that. Costello writes with insight and authority on a range of subjects, from insurance investigation to real estate to religious extremism. For example, as Vi's brother, Jens, grinds out millions of lines of code for an online war game called "BigIf," Costello gives us a brief, accessible lesson on how the programs work while adding depth and dimension to the character. For Jens, working at BigIf is a sellout job, but he sees his code and the inner workings of the game itself as pure and detached from the final product: "If a subroutine is beautiful -- flexible and balanced, efficient, multithreaded, not one line longer than it needs to be -- does it matter that its purpose is to make a cartoon fart?"

Like Jens' code, Costello's prose is concise, imaginative, and animating but fortunately reaches to greater, nonflatulent ends. This multifaceted, highly satisfying novel reveals Costello as that rare breed of writer who has both considerable talent and admirable restraint. Now he'll have a reputation to match. -- Stephen Deusner

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