#95) When parodies fail: Why I’m not “wild” about “Rabid”

Having deconstructed a memoir of which I only read about a third, I’ll now try my hand analyzing a book where save for a few snatches of the Amazon preview, I’ve read none.

I understand why “Rabid”, a parody of Cheryl Strayed’s best selling memoir “Wild”, exists. Over-saturation is the mother of parody and for the last few years, it’s been hard to escape “Wild” or the throngs of adoring (rabid, if you will) Cheryl Strayed fans and their blog posts about how her book changed their life. That said, author Libby Zangle’s attempt to send-up Strayed doesn’t work. How can I tell that after having only read a few paragraphs? Those few paragraphs are unfunny, predictable and full of jealousy. Just as one can watch a trailer for a movie and think “No way”, it doesn’t take Nostradamus to divine, even from a short sample, that this book is basically a self-indulgent rant. Its shortcomings provide instruction in how to and how not to make effective parody.

Though it sounds counter-intuitive, at the heart of every great parody is an affection or at least an empathy for its subject. The goal of “This is Spinal Tap” was not to make the audience hate hair metal or overblown progressive rock; when “Eat It” made Weird Al Yankovic a household name the idea was never that we should burn copies of “Thriller.”

Zangle’s writing has virtually no empathy and plenty of resentment toward Cheryl Strayed. To hear Zangle tell it, it’s almost as if Strayed’s self-destruction following her mother’s death was part of a master plan; fodder for a future best-selling memoir. In Chapter 2, “Does every tragic heroine have to do heroin?” Zangle finds herself in a dingy motel room, much as Strayed did on the night before she set off on the Pacific Crest Trail. Zangle gathers her hike inventory: “There was a red compression sack…one Nalgene bottle and one Gatorade bottle…There was a large syringe for shooting up heroin. Just kidding. The syringe was for backwashing my water filter.”

Despite her condescending attitude toward “Wild”, Zangle has obviously gone to lengths to replicate Strayed’s writing. The first lines of “Wild”: “The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in northern California.” “Rabid”: “The trees were tall. They were actually taller than me. Probably taller than most humans I have met…[b]ut…they actually looked small because of this funny thing called perspective…” While watching “Spinal Tap”, you get the sense that Reiner, Guest, McKean, Shearer et. al really had fun creating the down-on-their-luck, over the hill rock band. By contrast, Zangle comes off as the loner sitting at home on prom night writing in her journal about how much she hates the vapid popular girls who are dancing with the football players while really wanting nothing more than to be one of them.

Is “Wild” perfect? No; neither the memoir or its author are perfect, but to geek out on “Wild” as a how-not-to book is to miss its point. Of course Cheryl Strayed did a million things wrong, from her substance abuse to her lack of preparation for the trip. She lived to tell and has shared her experiences in a way that while sometimes is weightier and more ponderous than necessary has nevertheless connected with readers worldwide. Meanwhile Zangle remains a low-to-the-ground target, going for obvious laughs without making any kind of personal investment.

Perhaps there’s room for an effective parody of “Wild”–one which would respect Strayed’s journey while gently ribbing her self-seriousness. Perhaps Zangle will evolve as a writer and create more enjoyable parodies; hell, maybe I’ll even read one of them someday. If there’s more to “Rabid” than the Amazon preview, I’ll eat crow, but if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck and looks like a duck…

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