Disturbing Dreams 

Wry illustrations take a twisted look at the century that was

Wry illustrations take a twisted look at the century that was

20th-Century Dreams

By Nik Cohn and Guy Peellaert (Knopf, $25)

In 1973, writer Nik Cohn and artist Guy Peellaert published Rock Dreams, a heavily illustrated volume that helped sum up the tumultuous ’60s. Their new collaboration, 20th-Century Dreams, is as ambitious as its title, and it earns a place among the books that aspire to summarize this used-up century. In elaborate, detailed, and witty photo collages accompanied by satirical sound bites of text, Cohn and Peellaert create a millennial party at which you will recognize half the famous people of the century. The hugely entertaining aspect of the book is that none of these people will be doing what you expect them to be doing—and most of them would not be pleased to find themselves as characters in this outrageous montage of cultural and political history.

20th-Century Dreams is a handsome full-color paperback, art-book size. The text and photos purport to be ”The Journals of Max Vail.“ In the fictional ”introduction,“ John Lennon calls Robert Mapplethorpe an arse licker, and the next thing you know the narrator has met Vail, a Warholian figure who knew everyone who was anyone. The book could stand just as well without the introduction, and for that matter it doesn’t really need the paragraph of text that accompanies each illustration. The words beside the picture of J. Edgar Hoover dancing in Rockette-style hotpants, halter, and top hat is typical: ”Edgar was not a rhythm man. Whenever they visited a nightclub, his friends used to tease him because he’d sit scowling at their table and refuse to even tap his foot. åIt’s all a front,’ Clyde liked to say. åIn your dreams, you’re a dancing fool.’ “

It’s the illustrations, not the moderately clever but uninspired text, that make 20th-Century Dreams worthwhile. This book is about image, in more than one sense of the word. In one picture, John F. Kennedy hangs by his hands from a skyscraper window ledge, while Bobby bends down and reaches for him; Teddy stands in the background, unmoving. In another, a bathrobed Benito Mussolini and two armed soldiers have come downstairs in the night to find out what’s making all the noise in the den. It turns out to be Adolf Hitler lying on the floor, playing with a toy train set. Elsewhere, Richard Nixon kneels in prayer, an empty whiskey flask beside him, while Jane Fonda, obviously naked under her nun’s habit, serenely watches. Albert Einstein whirls around from an equation-scrawled blackboard to stop Babe Ruth from swinging a bat. Courtney Love finds the body of Kurt Cobain, while a deathly William Burroughs stands hat-in-hand behind them.

Imaginative, daring, and unique, these collages are beautifully put together. 20th-Century Dreams is cynical and unblinking and sometimes smirking, but it is nonetheless a labor of love—a bitter sort of love, to be sure. The illustrations add up to a surreal parade of the iconic figures that populate our swarming minds in this image-drenched century. Muhammad Ali is at the wheel of a convertible, driving away with an excited Jacqueline Kennedy. In a sleazy hotel room, Billie Holiday gives Tennessee Williams a heroin injection. Ronald Reagan shows Pope John Paul II his shoe collection, while Nancy Reagan examines the feet of Mother Teresa.

The collages are grouped into chapters, including one called ”Ah, the Sex Thing.“ Here, the two aging male collaborators have saturated this book with cheap and tawdry sex—flashily 20th-century sex. Occasionally it works, as when a nude Princess Diana primps at a motel room mirror while the door behind her is opened by a Prince—or at least the artist formerly known by that name. But frequently the nudity seems pointless, not to mention in very poor taste. In one picture, Marilyn Monroe lies in a cemetery at night, against a stone idol of Marlene Dietrich. Although apparently dead, Monroe is portrayed with her naked behind in the foreground, her panties pulled down to her thighs, her hand between her legs. Elsewhere, world leaders are surrounded by women who seem curiously unable to keep their breasts inside their clothes.

There is an index in the back consisting of thumbnail reproductions of the pages with the major participants identified. Many of the people are of iconic stature, such as Margaret Thatcher and Salman Rushdie. But some are not so easily recognized—such as Dadaist artist Tristan Tzara and former Ethiopian dictator Haile Selassie—and there are no explanatory footnotes and few extra words. In the index summary of a scene at the Berlin Wall, Franz Beckenbauer is identified as a soccer player, but the creators of this book assume you know who Gunter Grass and Max Schmeling are.

Prowl the book, and you will find Françoise Sagan and Vladimir Nabokov, ”Baby Doc“ Duvalier and Giulietta Masina. Sometimes even the name isn’t enough to trigger recognition. Let me know if you recognized Lavrenty Beria. I had to look him up. And who the hell is Diego Maradona?

—Michael Sims

Welcome to the club

Manette Ansay, who recently left Nashville for New York, was featured last month in People, which devoted a cover story to Oprah Winfrey and the writers made suddenly famous by her book club. Ansay is the award-winning author of four novels and a collection of short stories, Read This and Tell Me What It Says (Bard, $12). Sadly, that title has proved prophetic in Ansay’s life: The still undiagnosed nerve disorder from which the author has suffered since her late teens is beginning to affect her eyesight.

If writing has become physically more difficult for Ansay, her recent work only deepens and enriches the accomplishments of her fictional debut, Vinegar Hill (Avon, $10), the work chosen by Winfrey. And the good news is that ”Oprah’s Book Club“ has a major influence on sales, meaning that Ansay can now afford to use her ”time at the computer strictly for work“ and can hire someone to read to her rather than waiting for books to come out on audio.

—Diann Blakely

Cat food

Eating the Cheshire Cat (Scribner, $23), a new novel by Helen Ellis, has forebears in both Jane Austen and the women who beam fixedly from the pages of Southern Living. A native of Tuscaloosa, Ellis sets her debut work in that college town, where ascending the social ladder takes the maniacal determination of William T. Sherman. Indeed, Sherman’s scorched-earth policy could have been invented by some of the characters in Ellis’ socialite satire, which explores its territory with a gracious plenty of depth—and subversiveness—and thus transcends the stereotypical. Refreshing and darkly comedic, Eating the Cheshire Cat will surely appeal to those still nursing cases of spiritual heartburn after an overload of holiday cheer.

—Diann Blakely

Teaching the blues

Adam Gussow, author of Mister Satan’s Apprentice: A Blues Memoir (Vintage, $15), will be honored by the Blues Foundation this month. He won the 1999 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Literature, placing him among renowned figures such as playwright August Wilson. In fact, Gussow teaches Wilson’s work in his course on blues literature at the New School in Manhattan; this triple-threat memoirist, streetside harp meister, and professor is currently assembling an anthology of blues poetry that will include Tennessean Ishmael Reed.

—Diann Blakely


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