“All of You That’s Fit to Print”: A Review of Matthea Harvey’s If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?

If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?, by Matthea Harvey, Graywolf Press, 2014, 160 pages, ISBN: 978-1-55597-684-2

The question posed by the title of Matthea Harvey’s latest book isn’t simply rhetorical. 2014, not yet cold in its grave, was the year that Kim Kardashian’s posterior (gleaming, clothed and unclothed, with and without a shower of strategically released champagne) was supposed to break the internet. It also saw the unsettling resolution of the News of the World “phone hacking” trial in England. These two events, anticlimaxes both—the web and Rupert Murdoch survived—are reminders that tabloid culture, especially as it exists online, has no limiting principle, least of all the truth.

So what, then, is the answer to Harvey’s question? If the tabloids are true in large part because they thrive on dishonesty ranging from winking cheekiness to bald criminality, what are we? Liars? Saps? Or is it that we are what the tabloids tell us we are: nobodies not worth talking about? Pushing back against this last possibility appears to be what unifies Harvey’s collection. And giving such a book a sense of cohesion is no small feat. If the Tabloids Are True isn’t a traditional monograph where unity comes from a reader’s generic understanding that putting a bunch of poems in sequence and publishing the results is something that poets do every few years. It isn’t a book for a book’s sake. Instead, it’s structured more like a travelling museum exhibit, with words and images juxtaposed. The sections of the book, some named and some not, function like rooms one walks through—the pieces arranged on the walls with an idea in mind, though not one obvious enough to make the process of exploration feel like a lecture.

The act of trying—and frequently failing—to look at and through people and things is repeated and brings us back to the titular question. If the Tabloids Are True begins with a series of prose poem character sketches of mermaids. “The Objectified Mermaid” opens with some of the most telling lines in the book:

“The photographer has been treating her like a spork all morning. ‘Wistful mouth, excited tail! Work it, work it! He has no idea that even fake smiling spreads to her eyes and her tail and there’s nothing she can do about it short of severing her spine.”

The mermaid here, shades of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” is also an attraction at a bar where patrons pay for a “quick feel of her tail.” But she’s not the draw she used to be, so she’s forced to keep playing the game, to do everything “short of severing her spine” in order stay relevant and profitable.

While it’s easy to see the feminist critique of the male gaze here, “The Objectified Mermaid” is perhaps more importantly a reminder of the way that tabloid culture has shaped the logic of social media. The allegedly personal spaces we curate, the faces we project to the world, these aren’t ours at all. They are owned by corporations that harvest and sell our data, and consumed by people invited to judge us. We should be appalled by all of this, but the lure of being known, for whatever reason and by whatever means, turns us into plastic objects. It seems that any of us could be the next Kim Kardashian, famous, as the comedian Joel McHale frequently says, “for having a big ass and sex tape.” Never mind the fact that McHale delivers his alleged burn on the same television network, E!, that has turned the entire Kardashian clan into stars for being (heavily-edited, well-lit, brought-to-you-by-T-Mobile versions of) themselves. It’s enough to do your head in, so instead we mermaids give in: “When asked if she is tired, she lies. A downward spiral means the opposite up here.”

If the Tabloids Are True doesn’t present glib or grand solutions to the problems of our world turned on its head, but it is precisely the kind of cultural reading we need in the wake of the News of the World verdicts. In that case, the powerful were able to violate the privacy and individuality of the weak with near impunity, and even the patsies are out of jail only a few months after going in. Harvey’s work reminds us that looking shouldn’t be an act of objectification, but the basis for what George Orwell called “political regeneration.” Indeed, looking at and reading words, images, and people can be the beginning of mindful recognition of our shared potential to make things better. One particularly striking set of images in the book is a series of small figurines and tumbling chairs frozen within ice cubes. At first, these sculptures seem to reiterate how stuck we all are within our cultural roles. But then there are the little puddles surrounding the bases of some of the sculptures. Ice melts, and our cultural media isn’t permanent either. If we pay attention to the processes of change, if we are really looking at the way the world around us works, who it fails and who it benefits, we can get out of the downward spiral. Maybe then we can stop lying to ourselves and others, can accept that we’re somebodies worth really knowing, not nobodies worth treating like sporks.

—Daniel Pecchenino