Taken as a continuously unreeling whole, the oeuvre of Times style writer Alex Kuczynski is one of the more astonishing texts of our time. From her days at the Observer through her stint as serious auteur of a book about plastic surgery, Kuczynski's work has managed to move, baffle, and alarm nearly everyone it's touched. We wondered if maybe there was a method to her madness. Turns out, there is!
A survey of Kuczynski's work reveals a pattern at once troubling and comforting, but a pattern all the same. Understanding it is like receiving a diagnosis for some clearly terminal but as yet unnamed disease: At least you know what to expect in the end but it probably won't make you feel any better.
I. A) The Anecdotal Misdirect
Almost every piece starts off with some bizarre recitation of trivia from her life that inevitably paints her as a precocious and cultured bearer of the high cultural torch. The problem is, this is sort of accurate!
A December 1st, 2005 column, for instance, began with: "I've never enjoyed the holidays. There was the time in eighth grade when my mother wouldn't let me open my presents until I had finished reading 'Sense and Sensibility.' So I sat scowling at the book for three days until finally, on Dec. 28, she relented."
Or, from a column on temporary stores, "I can still remember the first pop-up book of my childhood: Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Emperor's New Clothes.'" Like a sleight-of-hand prestidigitator, what Kuczynski is doing here is distracting you from the real meat of the article in the guise of inviting you in. This is to disguise that she's about to conjure up 1000 words about what she's really supposed to be writing about.
I. B) The Name Drop
The naming of names is a Kuczynski tradition. Now these names range from rock stars to politicos, but all have the same type of lustre in common. This device is sometimes used in conjunction with the misdirect; it sometimes replaces it, and sometimes is merely a component. For instance, in a story about Victoria's Secret in Las Vegas, Kucynzki opens:
I DON'T particularly like the Rolling Stones, mostly because a few years ago I sat behind Keith Richards at a screening of the movie ''Traffic,'' and he kept banging his chair into my shin and never apologized. But a couple of weeks ago, at the urging of friends, I got on an airplane and flew six hours to see the Stones in concert in Las Vegas.
Now, what this has to do with lacy albeit low-quality lingerie seems at first a complete mystery—until we come to the next essential Kuczynski element.
II. The Contortion
In about paragraph three, Kuczynski often orchestrates a weirdly alluring contortion whereby her Uneccessary Anecdote is wrangled into the service of the piece. This is by far the prime cut of her articles. It's here where her actual talent shines. Take, for example, the athletic contortions necessary to work in that bit about Jane Austen to the matter at hand:
I haven't read a page of Jane Austen since. In the annals of instruction this lesson was similar to my third grade gym teacher's telling me to imagine that my family had been kidnapped by terrorists and that the only way to save their lives would be if I did a back flip on the trampoline.
There was more negative reinforcement: I was 21 years old, working at my first job in book publishing, and my task on Dec. 23 was to escort Jackie Mason to a book signing at Macy's. I had never been to Macy's, and I couldn't imagine why none of my co-workers leapt at the chance to spend the night before Christmas Eve in what was surely one of the world's most glamorous, exciting department stores.
The signing was to take place on one of its higher floors. Mr. Mason and I struggled through the crowd to the elevators and found them all choked with humanity. We shoehorned ourselves onto the escalator, ascending into an agitated throng of holiday shoppers, packs of men and women scrambling for the last pair of argyle socks or Cabbage Patch Kid.
I was Dante, Mr. Mason was Virgil, and here we were in the ninth circle of hell: Macy's, two nights before Christmas.
So after Austen, Mason, Dante and Virgil we finally get that perhaps this might be an article about places to and not to shop before Christmas. In another classic example of Kucsynskian wrangling, we realize that of course it was necessary to mention the Rolling Stones because, while in Vegas, Kuczynski checked out the Victoria's Secret store and she only was there because she had flown to Vegas to see the Stones even though she doesn't like them really but what does she care? She's Alex Kuczynski, dammit!
III. The Rest
Then so often her and our interest wanes. It only takes on average four sentences about the resonance of Bloomie's or the changing rooms at Loehmann's for us to turn the page. Hell, we rarely even stick around for the conclusion which sometimes, though not at all always, includes a callback to her opening.
For instance, per those pop-up stores, "At home I unwrapped the outfit, piteously, from its organe tissue paper, dreaming the dream of the empress with new clothes, who had none." Get it? Her first pop-up book was the Emperor's New Clothes! Genius.
This distinctive Kuczynksi formula really only came about in the middle of 2005, perhaps a bit later. This is also when she was up to her wattle in plastic surgery, presumably as research for her book Beauty Junkies. Before that, she was an enthusiast of the straight opening.
There are two competing theories on why this is true. The first posits that as she was writing her memoir, Kuczynski became more and more self-obsessed—so by the time it was finished, the only way she could interface with the external world was by accessing some point in her illustrious past.
The other theory is that while some surgeon was mucking about inside Kuczynski's face, they jostled some part of her frontal lobe. The trauma, or, rather, "change," enlarged her ego to an extent that, like a solipsist, all she knew and believed in was her mind. She literally can not think about Bloomingdale's without thinking about how a man touched her ladyparts with a tape measure when she was a little girl. (There is a third theory, which has to do with the Styles section of the Times and its editing, but never mind that!)
In the past, such neurological dysfunctions have been known to produce some great writing. Many believe that it was a function of Woody Guthrie's Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and the consequent synaptic changes in his mind that produced his greatest songs.
Whether it be medical malpractice or simply a side effect of writing about oneself, Kuczynski's work has transformed; and because of that, we have gained just a little insight into the luxurious inner workings of a rich woman's brain.