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Hillary Carlip's À la Cart: The Secret Lives of Grocery Shoppers [25 June, 2008]

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By Hillary Carlip; Virgin Books; 120 pages

According to Hillary Carlip’s introduction to À la Cart: The Secret Lives of Grocery Shoppers, she’s been collecting shopping lists—other peoples’ lists—since her teens.  Some of these are detailed, with subheadings for beverages and dairy.  Others are scrawled on the insides of matchbooks.  At least one is cryptic enough to suggest a wicked sense of humor: “Mouse traps.  Cheese.  Mouse.”

Carlip began to imagine the lives and bodies of the people who made these lists.  She set about collecting clothes from thrift stores and, with the assistance of photographer Barbara Green and makeup artist Chris Nelson, posed as the imagined characters in brief photo essays.  The mousetrap list?  It’s supposed to belong to Derrick, the morbid 22-year-old who still lives with his mother, and spent his childhood killing and mounting bugs.  And he’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Then there’s Helen, whose grocery list cites brand names.  That’s because Helen is an assiduous coupon-clipper who saves an average of $209 each month.  She has to, because she’s an obsessive crafter, as is obvious from the hand-made Holly Hobbie denim shirt she’s wearing.  Her husband, fed up with her spending so much money on crafting supplies, has drastically limited her allowance, hence her coupon cutting mania.  And then there’s Kim, the belligerent alcoholic, suddenly faced with an adult daughter whom she’d given up for adoption as a baby.  Kim stands confusedly in the grocery store with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in hand, wearing a leather vest with the words, “Born to be wild.”

For the most part, Carlip’s recreated characters are from the middle to working classes (if such distinctions can even be said to exist in these economically strained times).  A rare exception is Dr. Bloom, who’s busy shopping for ham, roast beef and smoked turkey at the supermarket to prepare for dinner with Gloria Steinem; the head of the Feminist Majority; and the president of Girl’s Inc.  Dr. Bloom has two daughters who’ve failed to live up to her feminist principles—one’s dropped out of school and the other’s in her third marriage.

What are we to make of Carlip’s recreations of American life as lived through shopping lists?  The detritus of other people’s lives can be fascinating.  And yet, her literary and visual portraits are troubling.  It’s not just the looks that Carlip emulates, with ashy grey makeup and strangely askew noses and eyes standing in for racial/ethnic features of people of color (Carlip is white), but her renditions of their lives.

 À la Cart is not meant to be a serious ethnographic study, but its facile nature says a lot about the class-based stereotypes on which we operate.  Carlip falters in the rare instance she attempts to portray the upper crust: Dr. Bloom is much more likely to have catered her affair than serve deli meat.  Carlip’s typical of American humorists who are comfortable imagining the lives of the poor or stuck-in-the-middle class as hilarious tales of underachievement.

Take Maggie.  Ever since she saw Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, she’s struggled to find clients and still dreams of her Prince Charming/Richard Gere coming to rescue her—she’s always wanted to be “a hooker with a heart of gold.” It’s phrases like that which reveal how embedded Carlip is in the clichés through which we’re encouraged to imagine that Maggie’s too dumb to realize that Pretty Woman was a fantasy.

Tuyen is the Vietnamese immigrant who still remembers her childhood in Vietnam and “the mid-Autumn Festival where children parade … carrying colorful lanterns, and receive moon cakes.”  What’s a tale of a Vietnamese immigrant without lanterns and moon cakes?  Carlip rehashes every tired cliché about who people are based on their income and where they come from.  It’s like watching Cindy Sherman pose as Anna Deavere Smith performing on race in America, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.  Sure, the book’s meant to be a joke.  But what and whom are we laughing at, exactly?

Originally published in Windy City Times, 25 June, 2008


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