The Spectacle of Spectating: On Samantha Allen’s “Patricia Wants to Cuddle”
By Ryan McIlvainAugust 2, 2022
Patricia Wants to Cuddle by Samantha Allen
OK, Catchers. I know it’s taken me longer than usual to bring you your week nine spoilers but I finally have the scoop on the Final Four. My source in production says the remaining contestants are currently en route to Otters Island, Washington. (Remember how I told you back in July that they were going to film the penultimate week in Japan? Well, I guess they finally looked up the cost of airfare to Tokyo! Now they’re going somewhere that has more sheep than people.)
And there it is — the setup, and all of modern life, in a nutshell.
Of course, any good novel about television (and this is a very good novel about television) needs to take account of the spectacle of spectating — just how weird it is, and essential, how it soaks up our lives. This is where we come in too, as readers: we’re watchers, parasocial lonelyhearts aching for connection through words, characters, scenes. What elevates T-Rex and the other posters’ importance is their sheer enthusiasm, the fact that they show up and keep showing up. And in a novel that’s killingly smart about the wages of ennui, T-Rex is a king indeed.
A bit of “roll call” now, continuing with T-Rex’s post:
Anyway, I can now reveal that Glamstapix “co-founder” Jeremy Blackstone — a.k.a. America’s most eligible bachelor *rolls eyes* — sent home mommy vlogger Rebecca Patton and pharmaceutical sales representative Zoey Sykes during the week eight Elimination Event in Sacramento. That means your official Final Four are: Christian influencer Lilah-Mae Adams, fashion vlogger Amanda Parker, auto show model Vanessa Voorhees, and HR rep Renee Irons.
Cut to comments about the Final Four and Jeremy from the other posters on CatchChat.Com, in a cascading torrent of right indent. CatchTheseHands weighs in, then GlamstaRicks, then CatcherInTheSky … What’s fun about these passages of chat, gossip, speculation, and complaint is that the communal text reads like witty word art in an otherwise traditional thriller. We spend the bulk of the novel roving through the perspectives and backstories of our main contestants, each with their various motives for submitting to the embarrassing rigors of the dating show, not to mention to the dopey whims of dopey Jeremy. Occasionally, T-Rex and Co., our avatars, pop back in and snipe and meta-comment, and their chat logs skitter down the pages. It’s all delightful and often laugh-out-loud funny — and a sneaky-apt representation of how our lives are lived, with clear skies full of plans interrupted by flurries, then blizzards, of image and text.
Partly it’s resistance to this status quo that sets Renee apart from the other contestants, not to mention her unsexy designation in T-Rex’s description. A depressed “HR rep,” Renee quickly becomes our everywoman, another avatar inside this world of unrelatably beautiful, assured, purposeful people. Not that the curated selves of the other contestants don’t waver and break at times, often in deeply humanizing ways, but it’s Renee who occupies the moral center of the novel. At first a victim of the ennui weighing everything down like a lead blanket, at last she struggles to get out from under it.
When the lore-beast finally arrives on the scene and starts picking off contestants, it’s Renee who feels the electrifying current of something real — not in spite of herself but because of some part of herself she’s only just discovered. Renee eventually finds herself running toward the screams.
She feels giddy. Electric. Almost every night of her life for eight years, she has known exactly what to expect: takeout and TV, rinse and repeat. But tonight — this beautiful cloudless night — Renee doesn’t know what she’s going to see except that it’s something she has never seen before.
Cut to the Sasquatch herself (and I’ll commit that one spoiler by using the female pronoun). More cagily, I’ll just say that the “monster” at the center of the terror isn’t so monstrous after all, at least not in her motivations. “What we call monsters are not so to God,” writes Michel de Montaigne, “who sees in the immensity of his work the infinity of forms he has comprised in it.” The lore-beast terrifies, but there she is — real after all, hungry, and beautiful in her hunger.
It’s no accident that Renee, just beginning to come out of the closet, looks at the Sasquatch with a kind of wonder, and envy. Where she and the rest of the other contestants on The Catch have been performing, pretending all along, behold a creature who knows how to simply be, who is radically herself.
Allen comes to the world of fiction-making from Real Queer America (2019), her road-trip memoir/book of reportage/sociological study of queer communities in red-state America. And the slashes could go on, by the way — Real Queer America is a book that in its shape-shifting and enviable multitasking anticipates the nesting-doll quality of Patricia Wants to Cuddle, with several books hiding inside the main book, a little as if the Melville of Moby-Dick had decided to switch his focus from cetology to the absurdities and escapist charms of late-capitalist media, celebrity culture, and queer love. It’s several books for the price of one, in other words, and God love it for that.
I’m nearly done here, and I have to say I can’t conjure much in the way of obligatory gripes. A pure rave, then, but with a few provisos.
What makes a novel like Patricia so vital is that it reminds us just how fun literature can/should be, in this case with all the hallmarks of a “beach read,” that double-edged recommendation. And yet the sentences in Patricia are supple and smart throughout, the characters deep, human, growing more complicated as our views into their interior lives and histories expand across the novel. Jonathan Lethem can write books like this, Michael Chabon too, Kate Atkinson, Tana French … The list goes on, but not for as long as you might think. You want a book that works, basically, but that doesn’t feel like work. It’s quite a circle to square.
Maybe I’m projecting here. I probably am — recovering lit-fic snob, too much grad school, etc. And yet it isn’t all projection: I teach English majors for a living, and I can tell you that many of them talk about their rompy summer reading lists only when pressed, and then in tones of embarrassment or apology. Fantasy? Horror? YA? “Yeah, I mean, I do love a good YA novel…” As if I might rap them on the knuckles for saying it.
The old literary novel/“entertainment” binary that Graham Greene proposed is still with us, alas. I’m not sure there’s a way out of it, except for more books of the kind Allen has just written to come along and dissolve it, to abolish that particular slash once and for all.
Ryan McIlvain is an assistant professor of English at the University of Tampa. His most recent novel is The Radicals.
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