BOOKS AND ARTS MAY 19, 2005
Spring is here, and with it comes the high school class of 2005. Ah, graduation: caps and gowns, "Pomp and Circumstance," diplomas, class picnics, barbecues, pranks, and, of course, interminable speeches and non-denominational benedictions. Just in case your high school isn't providing enough cliches about the next big step — striving toward goals, being yourself, standing up for what you believe in, becoming a well-rounded adult — Maria Shriver has stepped in with a graduation speech-cum-minibook-cum-gagfest.
Shriver's "book" — such that it is, at a brisk 64 pages — started as a graduation speech to a class of high-school girls and their mothers. Apparently, the response to her words of wisdom was so effusive that Shriver decided to turn her speech into a book. Given the dreadful quality of the finished product, I can only assume that the overenthusiastic response came from unapologetic sycophants trying to score some face time with a Kennedy. Shriver's speech-turned-book is nothing more than cheesy maxims straight from the Hallmark store: "Fear can be your best teacher"; "Keep a childlike quality"; "It's a balancing act"; "You'll need a lot of courage"; and, of course, "Learn from your mistakes." I can see high-school kids all over the country retching and rolling their eyes just at the thought of sitting through a recitation of this cloying babble, let alone reading it for themselves.
But the indefatigable Shriver seems to think she has a real connection to high schoolers and some real wisdom to impart. Take the time she suggested turning a small bankrupt museum in Sacramento into a museum dedicated to the great women of California (way to look out for number one, Maria!). I'm sure any high schooler can relate to what happened: Shriver didn't propose her idea through the appropriate legislative channels and was skewered — mercilessly skewered! — in the press. "Oh, man. I was in a foxhole — and when you're in a foxhole, you're in it alone." Her comfort using war imagery in this situation is really just appalling. "All of a sudden I seemed to have offended everybody, no matter how good the idea was." Shriver's mistake, apparently, was not realizing that she was living among pinheads. I think that's a lesson every teen needs to embrace.
Maria isn't just a ruthless museum autocrat; she has a soft side too, or at least she thinks she does. Shriver believes that you should not "resort to quick judgments based on labels like: 'This kid's from the Midwest. He can't possibly be cool.'" Setting aside for a moment the fact that she just offended every kid from Chicago who is right now thinking, Since when do people think that?, Shriver misses entirely the opportunity for a sweet anecdote of community between herself and a Bedouin family traveling through Egypt; or a story of her sincere friendship with the woman who tends to her children and who has struggled to create her own American dream. She chooses instead to illustrate her point with a grotesque and inane testimonial: "If a guy's a bodybuilder, it doesn't mean he's dumb. Ask questions. Find out. I did, and now I'm first lady of California." Well, you know what that means, ladies; start trawling the gym for buff brainiacs! Who knows, you might end up with a guy who high-fives you after sex and then says, "I'll be back."
Of course, being the first lady of California isn't all glamour and Terminator jokes; Shriver has experienced her share of painful changes over the last two years. "Look what happened to me! It turned out the Austrian Republican decided he wanted to go into politics — and on his first try, he became governor of California. Talk about whiplash." That's tough stuff. I bet all the high-school girls can really relate. That sounds way harder than finding out the school bullies have devoted a website to you called SallyIsASlut.com, or realizing you can't begin to afford college, or failing in your battle against bulimia. Shriver seems to think her audience is the high-school girls who are struggling to choose between Princeton and Yale. I mean, talk about whiplash! But she is sage: "As they used to say in the sixties, I had to go with the flow." Now I'm retching.
Why do celebrities continue to believe that their hackneyed epiphanies deserve a national audience? And One More Thing Before You Go is so trite that any possible message Shriver is trying to spread is lost in the sheer banality. But more than that, the book barely exists at all. To wit, it is the size of Reader's Digest, only it is one-third the number of pages. The "booklet" also has full one-inch margins on all sides, is printed in a twelve-point font, has "chapters" (three pages each, maximum) that begin two-thirds of the way down the page, and starts counting pages from the first blank leaf in the book (chapter one begins on page seventeen!). Shriver makes James Patterson look like a graphomaniac. In fact, this Pulps column may actually be longer than the book itself.
I find it difficult to believe that Shriver needs any extra cash, so I can only assume that writing this bookette was just a masturbatory ego stroke — another reason to call her an auteuse. So why is it so high on the best-seller list? Well, it is graduation season, and rather than slipping a check into a nice "Congratulations" card (as is the only right and proper thing to do), hundreds of thousands of neighbors and aunts and cousins and friends of the family are buying Shriver's triumph as a saccharine totem of affection for the graduating teen in their lives. But teens, fear not! This pamphlet is not entirely without merit. I'm thinking coaster! It's the perfect size for a really sturdy mug of beer. Or it might be just the right thickness to stabilize that shaky desk — thicker than a matchbook, thinner than a magazine. Certainly kindling would be a natural use for this diminutive volume. It would yield only a very small fire, but perhaps enough to toast a solitary marshmallow at a graduation picnic.
Sacha Zimmerman is a frequent contributor to The New Republic.