Swiss Dots for Depressionistas

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picture-13There is, some believe, a place where short shorts and flash fiction fall in with fashion. The uncharted literary territory of J. Peterman; Brooks Brothers by way of Borges; J.Crew jewel tones via Jelinek.  This stead for despairing fashionables is j.cruel, constant sartorial wonderment, a blog that can be secretly bookmarked by open lovers of literature who are nonetheless forced to disguise their concomitant clothes-consciousness for fear that they will seem, well, less serious. Zadie Smith, perhaps?  What is it exactly? It has been mistaken for fashion. It has been called “ekphrasis for fashion.” It has been said over oolong, “I don’t know what it is, but I must read it.”

The narratives of j.cruel merge the navigable catalog format and imagery with unforeseen descriptions that build a quiet pleasurable tension between the lovely and the disastrous. She Walks in Beauty is a love story between a man and Martine, the most famous weightlifter in Luxembourg, who is injured by a zeppelin downed by swans. This post, which bears a Lemony-Snicket-Baudelaire-Orphans brand of mystery and misfortune, is filed under Atrophy, Gamine and Poison.

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For Richard Yates in argyle, see Dusk in Darien, in which a couple leaves a bad play the wife has just performed in. “When they yelled together, it was like they were really important people. Loud artists. It didn’t matter. In a few months they would be in Paris, yelling in French. Like really important French people. Things would be so much better there, so angry and alive!” Filed under Domestic Violence and Loveliness.

As with an L.L. Bean or Lands’ End catalog, j.cruel contains liner notes on the images, such as those following Meet the Sloops, a piece on the perfect Nantucket family who have been snubbing, challenging and eluding the loveless narrator for years: “On little him: chinos, seersucker, unreasonable expectations.”

But j.cruel may be less about fashion than a meditation on the catalog as communication, and it is the first effort of its kind that I’ve seen. It captures the mood of a catalog, and its dark and furtive infiltration that calls to mind James Vicary’s legendary advertising promotions of 1957. About his promos, Vicary claimed sales of popcorn increased by 58% when the phrase “Hungry—Eat Popcorn” was flashed briefly between frames of a projected film. While those claims have remained unfounded, the idea of someone not yourself controlling your subconscious remains a deep-seated source of fascination, if not fear. Why do you care about the mood or the subliminal side of catalogs? You ask. A better question might be, why do you order them, or flip through them when you claim to be so bothered by the way they enter your life, sliding unsolicited between masses of other insignificant postal assaults?

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But, beyond subliminal messaging, slides and seersucker,  j.cruel has expanded its source material with expedient, though sometimes coy, referential titles like Recession Finds: Soylent Green, a post devoted to eco-conscious alternatives to traditional food. And if you don’t always get the cultural allusions, for example, to Soylent Green, the 1973 dystopian sci-fi film starring Charleton Heston, a little epilogue helps to tie it all together: “Soylent Green. Cheap. Nutritious. People.”


Rozalia Jovanovic is a founding editor of Gigantic, a magazine of short prose and art. She is the Deputy Editor of Flavorpill and has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Columbia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from Unsaid, The Believer, Everyday Genius, Guernica, elimae, and Esquire.com. She blogs at The Astonishing Egg and is The Rumpus New York Editor. More from this author →