Dusty Pink by Jean-Jacques Schuhl

Dusty Pink (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents) BY Jean-Jacques Schuhl. Semiotext(e). Paperback, 128 pages. $14.
The cover of Dusty Pink (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents)

If Millennial Pink captures something of 2018’s youth zeitgeist, then according to French author Jean-Jacques Schuhl, winner of the 2000 Goncourt Prize for his novel Ingrid Caven, the late 1960s and early 1970s might be characterized as the years of “dusty pink.” His cult classic of the same title, first published in 1972 as Rose poussière, and now available in its very first English translation, is a patchwork of his musings and meditations on the London and Parisian undergrounds of that era, formed through vignettes and prose poems that blend fact, fiction, and fantasy.

Color and clothing play a prominent role throughout, used to signify characters’ affectations—a street-walker is a flourish of a green boa; riot cops are rows of identical black leather boots—and as markers of interconnection between scenesters, hangers-on, and wannabes, with miniskirts, boleros, and painted fingernails the passwords to a transnational cool. The colors of these items are rarely bright or brilliant—often plain; or worse, dull or dusty—a fact that makes the era considered by many to be a heyday (if not the heyday) of counter-cultural rebellion and self-expression feel instead like one seeped in blandness and mechanical, consumerist repetition.

In the story “The Eyeliner (The Echo of Fashion),” Schuhl comments on the flattening, zombifying effect of the contrasting eyeliner and eyeshadow popular in the 1960s—a combination that spawned translucent, bug-eyed armies, hordes of girls “with very white skin and very black eyelids who never smile.” Similarly, in “…Biba, Kensington High Street,” Schuhl watches a sales clerk in the trendy London department store Biba douse herself with blush-on in the titular hue: “A salesgirl-model has dumped an entire container of ‘dusty pink’ powder on her face,” Schuhl notes. “She’s nothing more than a pink plaster cast now.” Mummified in this second, artificial skin, she adopts the dead luster of merchandise; and indeed, as Schuhl fantasizes, if Biba collapsed on itself, it would leave little more than “a trash heap where pastel-toned junk reigns,” an indistinguishable wreckage of shoppers, workers, and wares:

I’d like for Biba to collapse and bury these fine British people with skin so pale and so pink that amid the rubble only small fragments might be perceptible: a bracelet, a shoe’s toe, a closed eye, a clenched fist, a forearm, that they might be seized by death here in their freeze-tag-frozen figures, one of them half undressed in a fitting room, one with a hat in her hand, another with a hat on her head, that they might not be anything more than smudges of color: brown, black, dusty pink, gray, dark turquoise, bilberry, rust, yellow, cream, honey, bottle green.

In Dusty Pink, trends and their bearers are only ever half-alive, infected with the twin germs of their ephemerality and replaceability. The featured characters—mostly anonymous residents of London and Paris—are not portrayed as individuals, but instead presented as either as unnamed prototypes, like the dandy or the fashion model, or as mere amalgamations of clothes and hairdos soon to become outmoded. The only people who receive proper names are the uber-famous, like Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Brian Jones, though they seem named less as humans than personae, icons manufactured for record sleeves and television screens (to deadly consequence, in the case of Jones, who died in 1969—a casualty to young celebrity).

As Schuhl puts it, in a phrase he intentionally, and irreverently, misattributes to Coco Chanel, “Style isn’t funny. It’s something on the brink of suicide.” This perspective helps to explains why fashions can sometimes manifest here as shades that are not only grimy but definitively tainted: sickly whites and dusty pinks containing an undercoat of rot; colors at least a couple paces removed from any natural human skin tone. To embrace fashion is, Schuhl implies with a hearty wink, to accept a morbid sort of social contract—subsuming the self to the mass through objects that are, in the end, fleeting and fickle.

Translator Jeffrey Zuckerman has done an admirable job of making Schuhl’s jagged, reference-laden prose comprehensible and meaningful to English-language readers, ensuring that Schuhl’s voice comes across in all of its peculiar uniqueness, rhythm, and loveliness. It is hard to choose one line to cite among the many standouts; but take, for example, this description of a sixteen-year-old’s gait from the story “Composite Portrait of Mutant 66 [The Electric Teenager]”: “Both bouncy and clumsy. Dragging feet tracing commas. Of someone with a cracked femoral neck. That’s it: a cracked gait. Hip inflexion (always the same). He puts one foot forward and his whole body tumbles after his foot, and the whole world after his body, while he determinedly eats a Grand Marnier crêpe folded into fourths and balanced on a tiny silvery cardboard plate that he holds in the hollow of his palm.”

That Schuhl’s rhetorical flair stands the test of both translation and time, however, does not imply that all of his descriptions do. Though male figures, like the teenager or the Rolling Stones, are critically examined, Schuhl primarily relies upon women to express the effects of materialism and commercialization, describing them—as in the previously discussed sections—as automatons in makeup so caked-on and thick they can barely see. But Schuhl’s ambivalent relationship to the mass culture he critiques makes this tendency more forgivable. In highlighting these cultural hypocrisies, Schuhl also seems resigned to mass culture’s import and vitality: “What is inimitable is uninteresting,” Schuhl admits in “The Eyeliner,” suggesting that his made-up women, who sleepwalk from one trend blindly into the next, are as much symbols of cultural decline as they are symbols of cultural honesty.

In a Baudelairian vein, attractiveness is not to be found in those who harken back to a classical past, but in those who embrace the contemporary with open arms. Beauty is “a girl with far too large knees wearing ultra-miniskirts,” not “one who dresses timelessly, who is perfectly proportioned.” These “flowers of decomposition,” as he calls them, understand and embrace better than anyone else the realities of the rapid, ready-to-wear postwar capitalist order—forces still shaping, in evolved form, the millennial pink world of today.

Hannah Stamler is a writer, editor, and PhD student at Princeton University.