Tales Of A Bookish Psychopath
The most literary show on TV doesn’t air on HBO or Showtime. It’s not hiding on PBS. ‘You’, a ludicrously entertaining and creepy stalker melodrama, aired on the Lifetime Network and has now moved over to Netflix. It contains more references to literature and the lit world than any show I’ve ever seen.
‘You’ owes its existence to a delicious, lurky source-material novel by Caroline Kepnes, who clearly went to a reading or two at the Rand McNally Bookstore when she lived in New York City. Kepnes concocted a meet-weird scenario between the two main characters involving the purchase of the Paula Fox novel Desperate Characters, the one introduced by Jonathan Franzen and referenced in New Yorker articles only bookish people have ever read. That reference remains in the TV show, even though it’s hard to imagine most of the audience cares. It doesn’t make any real difference to the story. A stalker’s a stalker. But it’s only the tip of You’s strange lit spear.
The book version of ‘You’ contains passages like: “the problem with books is that they end. They seduce you. They spread their legs to you and pull you inside. And you go deep and leave your possessions and your ties to the world at the door and you like it inside and you don’t want for your possessions or your ties and then, the book evaporates.” And that’s no mere set-up. That juicy morsel appears on page 400. Book people, readers or writers, aren’t superior because they read or because they like books. If anything, books drive them crazy.
In the novel and the TV show, our Ripleyesque anti-hero, Joe Goldberg, works in a bookstore that appears to be an antiquarian bookstore but also seems to make a lot of money by selling the latest Stephen King novels. The bookstore contains a hermetically-sealed basement vault where the owner, who never actually appears like Norman Bates’ mother, keeps the really rare books. As it turns out, the owner used to physically and maybe sexually abuse Joe, orphaned at 13, in the vault. He taught Joe the value of books by beating him with them. Because of that, Joe loves books perversely. They form the root of his pretensions, and of his sexual psychosis.
The object of Joe’s affection, Beck, comes off slightly better, but only because she’s not a twisted, bloodthirsty criminal. A “writer” with manipulation issues, Beck flounders in her MFA program, spending more time masturbating and getting drunk than actually writing. She graduated from Brown and reads her terrible “daddy didn’t love me” poetry at open-mikes in Greenpoint. She may be a writer of sorts, but she’s also kind of an idiot. No one would deserve what happens to her, but she’s hardly sympathetic or likable.
Somehow, Lifetime’s adaptation of ‘You’ manages to keep the book’s vibe of literary satire. It changes the story modestly, while keeping the broad outline. If anything, it streamlines the novel’s stream-of-consciousness narration, which sometimes feels bloated and unfocused. But it doubles down on the lit references. Here are just a few that I wrote down:
–A rich character who’s related to J.D. Salinger owns a purebred bichon frise named “Dalloway.” Another character owns a shelter cat named after Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch.
–A snotty literary agent tells Beck that MFA’s are a scam. If she wanted to be a real writer, he says, she’d drop out. Later, he calls her a “little literary hooker” before she gets into a limo that he’s going downtown in, because all agents ride in limos. He gropes her and offers her pills to help her “relax.” When she declines, he says, “Do you think sobriety created Joyce Carol Oates?” (Yes).
–Separate episodes feature an F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald-themed date, a costumed Dickens festival in upstate New York, and a literary-themed birthday party where people dress like Mark Twain, Hemingway, and Mr. Darcy.
–A stolen first edition of Ozma Of Oz forms a key plot point.
–Joe gives a neighbor kid, whose stepdad is beating his mom, a copy of Wuthering Heights to read.
–Early on, Joe tortures one of his victims by forcing him to admit he didn’t actually read On The Road.
–In bed, Joe is reading Black Swan Green by David Mitchell while Beck reads Zadie Smith.
–A bookstore employee has to sit down because the vegan diet he adopted after reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer is making him dizzy.
Little of this matters to the actual plot, which involves a lunatic stealing a girl’s phone and relentlessly hunting her like she’s a wounded gazelle in the wild. But the lit-world setting makes the story actually funny, and the satire deeply savage. When TV shows try to depict the literary world, they almost always get it ridiculously wrong. One hit novel makes Noah Solloway fabulously wealthy on The Affair. Keegan-Michael Key doesn’t make money, but does somehow gain a ridiculously outsized amount of prestige on Friends From College. John Early’s character on Search Party gets an absurd book contract based on a scam.
All those guys may be heels, but at least they’re producing something, at least trying to write. ‘You’ takes a different approach. For all of Beck’s dumb pretensions toward literary accomplishment, this isn’t really a show about writers. Actually, given that it’s on Lifetime, it’s a show about sleazy, obsessive love. Lit weirdoes happen to be involved. Despite the ludicrous literary jokes, the ambience almost feels real. This is a show about readers. And boy, are they a mess.