Sunday, November 14

So Yesterday - Scott Westerfeld

Fashion is pervasive, and it’s not limited to clothing and designers – fads and trends can make or break companies. Innovators may initiate new ways of doing things, from relacing sneakers to being the first to whack a filling between slices of bread, but they’re not popular; in a competitive market, getting cutting edge changes from their low-profile creators to a wider audience takes a new step, Trendsetters – they’re popular, and what they adopt becomes cool – they’re the link between fringe trends and the early adaptors who make them mainstream.
Hunter’s a Trendsetter – well, now he’s being paid for it, he’s not sure he still counts as trendy. In any case, though only seventeen he’s one of the best around. Part of his job is to watch out for new Innovations and send them on to his agent, Mandy, which is what he’s doing when he asks a stranger in the street if he can snap the Innovative pattern she’s made with her laces. He and Jen are still chatting when Mandy asks him to a cool tasting; he invites Jen along on a whim. It’s Jen who points out that the sneaker ad, in common with much of contemporary pop culture (dating back to the Mod Squad) has what she terms the missing-black-woman formation: a black guy, a white guy, and a white girl. And now that the term’s out there, the new ad will soon “look as dated as a seventies cop show,” which is what comes of bringing an Innovator where only the second tier Trendsetters belong.
At first he thinks that’s the worst outcome to develop from his association with Jen, but when they discover not only The Most Perfect Shoe of All Time but its disappearance, Hunter and Jen begin to investigate a new movement, one aimed at stopping the artificial acceleration, and the Jammers mean business.
Like Westerfeld’s novel Peeps, one of the things I like about So Yesterday is that the novel alternates between advancing the plot and insights that reflect the underlying idea being explored. The son of an epidemiologist, Hunter sprinkles concepts of contagion and communicability through his narrative, so the Spanish flu of 1918 is mentioned, then coopted to a marketing model. In chapter ten, Westerfeld illuminates the idea that everything we do started with one person’s innovation – from birthday presents to mystery novels, which is freakier the more you think about it. As too is the realisation that many innovations are driven by practical purpose:

The guy walking past was wearing a shirt five sizes too big (innovated by gangbangers to hide guns int heir waistbands), shorts down below his knees (innovated by surfers to keep their thighs from getting sunburned), and oversized shoes (innovated by skaters to save their feet from injury). Together all these once-practical ideas made the guy look like he’d been hit by a shrinking ray…

The dialogue is realistic, the tempo brisk and envigorating, and the premise is more than plausible. Though Hunter is well rounded, the characterisation of some of the other protagonists is less well articulated, but that bothered me not at all in either my first reading of So Yesterday in 2004 or my re-reading this week. Instead it’s the ideas, the plot and the pace that set So Yesterday above the majority of novels, adult or YA, elements common to Westerfeld’s work in general. And, as always, there’s the writing – observant, articulate, insightful and amusing. He manages to convey a lot of information in a minimum of words. A sample, at random, from the section describing the base layer of the fashion pyramid:

Last are the Laggards… Proud in their mullets and feathered-back hair, they resist all change, or at least all change since they got out of high school. And once every ten years or so they suffer the uncomfortable realization that their brown leather jackets with big lapels have become, briefly, cool.
But they bravely tuck in their KISS t-shirts and soldier on.

As I’ve commented in my reviews of them, So Yesterday has elements in common with other books I’ve enjoyed, from Gladwell’s The Tipping Point to Willis’s Bellwether. In all three cases the writing is interesting and accessible, and the ideas sparkle. - Alex

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