The Bookshelf

Rax King loves all things tacky and can seriously prove it

When hunting for this month’s literary pick I asked myself, “What book would complement my styro-faux Corinthian column and family of ghoulish porcelain-faced clown dolls?” The answer was Rax King’s new collection of essays, Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer (Penguin Random House). Released earlier this month, King’s book celebrates all that is gaudy, gauche and glorious, inviting readers to give up the protective exoskeleton of irony and just enjoy things, goddammit.

King is the Brooklyn-based co-host of the Low Culture Boil podcast and self-proclaimed writer-in-residence of the Cheesecake Factory. She grew up in the 2000s, an era few of us remember as a cultural belle epoque. For King, though, the zeitgeist gave rise to a personal philosophy of authentic enjoyment. The book opens with a recollection of her earliest encounters with the concept of tacky: “When [my mother] really wanted to cut my bubbe down to size, she’d bust out one particular insult. ‘Your grandi is just tacky-tacky-tacky!’” The cutting-down-to-size evidently didn’t work either on King’s bubbe or King herself, because to the budding author, tackiness became inextricable from the idea of inimitable cool.

“Everything worth doing, it seemed to me, was tacky-tacky-tacky,” she writes.

The word became a talisman of sorts, guiding King through the morass of becoming a person. Her essays seamlessly bind early-aught pop culture with the marrow of life—grief, growing up, sex, friendship—without feeling contrived or pandering. What shines through the joyful hodgepodge of schlock are the people and moments that shape experience. Recollections of Josie and the Pussycats blend with a meditation on perfection-vs-merit in art and in life while an ode to Bath and Body Works’ Warm Vanilla Sugar pairs with budding feminism. And while I never expected to cry reading an essay about MTV’s Jersey Shore, King writes with humor and tenderness about how watching the 2009 reality show together brought her closer to her father throughout a long illness.

As might seem obvious, King’s writing draws from an eclectic milieu. She cites influences like comedian and writer Samantha Irby, whose blog bitches gotta eat has long been an inspiration.

“It was super exciting for me in a fangirl way that [Irby] blurbed my book,” King tells me gleefully.

Also in her writer’s pantheon are Eve Babitz and Lisa Carver, also known as Lisa Suckdog, whose writing King “discovered in college when I was feeling really lonely and alienated—it made me feel like I had a friend, a fellow traveler of sorts.”

Still, despite King’s commitment to the unabashed enjoyment of so-called “low culture,” her essays are also peppered with references to so-called “high culture” like Homer, Mozart and Kant.

“The personal and the philosophical and the phenomenological, none of those things exist without the others,” King says.

She credits her alma mater, St. John’s College (in Maryland), with making her conversant in these spheres, but disagrees with the college’s narrow curation of said culture.

“So thank you St. John’s, and fuck you, St. John’s,” King tells SFR. “I keep joking that they should put me in the brochure because I know that I’ve been all over the internet, making them look like assholes since I graduated.”

Meanwhile, King notes, she’s happy to be swept up in the whirlwind of publicity generated by her first book.

“I’m running for mayor of please buy my shit,” she says jokingly; it’s only been a year since she was able to ditch a series of day jobs and write full-time.

“When I was still waiting tables, I had very little brain space left over at the end of the shift to get my little 500 words in,” King says, recalling the goal she used to set herself to stay focused on writing while juggling jobs. Being a full-time writer, she says, “is a lot of work, but when I look back on my years of waiting tables and stripping I’m like, oh no, I’m actually not working that hard—none of this is hard on my knees or my wrists.”

Tacky’s consumer-glorification bent does sort of stick in the craw, though. Perhaps it’s better to dip into essays one by one than to devour the collection whole— they’re the literary equivalent of a mall filled with fluorescent lights, chemical scents and crowds, which, while it may delight a circa 2009 Rax, leaves me yearning for a solitary moment in the fresh air. But I can’t argue with the idea that it’s time to be honest about what we enjoy, and stop curating experience for the external eye. As King writes, “tackiness is joyfulness. To be proudly tacky, your aperture for all the too-much feelings—angst, desire, joy—must be all the way open.”

More November Picks

Sacred City by Theodore van Alst; University of New Mexico Press, Nov. 1

This is My Real Name: A Stripper’s Memoir by Cid V Brunet, Arsenal Pulp Press, Nov. 2

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich; Harper Collins, Nov. 9

Nazaré by JJ Amaworo Wilson; PM Press, Nov. 9

New Moons: Contemporary Writing by North American Muslims edited by Kazim Ali; Red Hen Press, Nov. 16

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