30 Novels, day 5: The annual Christmas catalogue
When I was a kid a new edition of this eagerly-awaited novel came out every year, in the fall. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I fought with my siblings over it. I poured over each marvelous page countless times as the snow fell and the holiday season approached. Well, to be accurate I only skimmed through most of the chapters because the ones I really wanted to read were the last few.
Okay, the Christmas catalogue wasn’t a novel. But then again, in a way it was. And still is. If one definition of the novel is a work of fiction about a society and its values, then the Christmas catalog was certainly a novel. As you turned its pages you saw good-looking, mostly pale-skinned people enjoying themselves in their new blouses and skirts and slacks and suit jackets. You saw them relaxing on their new sofas, admiring their new drapes, happily using their new cookware and vacuum cleaners. And in the last few chapters, you saw kids playing with their marvelous shiny new toys. Although oddly enough they usually weren’t playing with the toys, they were just posed beside them, smiling at them. There was something eerie about those kids. They were too well-behaved.
Each image in the book was carefully posed, perfectly lit. There was no conflict in this perfect world, which should have made it a very boring novel. But of course it wasn’t. It was pure wish fulfillment. Every page was a happy ending.
Except for those excluded from this ideal society. You didn’t see very many old people in the book’s pages. You didn’t see many people of different ethnicities, and no one with tattoos, or differently abled, or homeless, or sad. You didn’t even see just plain ordinary-looking people like the ones you knew. Everyone in the book was beautiful.
Maybe the Christmas Wish Book was really a utopian novel of the future. Surely the people in this book acted as if they lived in a society free of all of the hangs-ups of ours. The women seemed perfectly happy to stand around in their bras and girdles without a trace of shame or embarrassment, and the same for the men in their briefs and long underwear. How strange that it wasn’t okay to want to look at undressed people in real life, but okay to look at them in a book.
When I was a kid the novel took me to a kind of toyland heaven, where there were never any adults around. If only I could get all of the things I saw and desired in those pages. If only that’s the way life really was. If only, if only…