Trouble in paradise

Paul Constant

April 06, 2017

Mount Analogue publisher Colleen Louise Barry first encountered Halie Theoharides’s blog Final Rose as a fan. In her interview with me, Barry’s enthusiasm for the project was clear. Final Rose, she explained, was made up of “all of these screenshots [Theoharides] would take while she was watching The Bachelor and The Bachelorette with closed captioning on. She would take a screenshot whenever the text and the image on the screen were doing something interesting or disturbing or funny.”

Barry was taken in by the concept of the blog, which she called a “beautiful” work of “genius.” She especially admired how Theoharides “walked this beautiful line of being really snarky, but also very much a fan of the show. It was this smart project that I felt everybody was invited to, and that was really exciting.”

Finally, Barry reached out to Theoharides by email, asking if she ever thought about compiling Final Rose as a book. They set to work compiling the book soon after — “we started looking through her hundreds of screenshots,” Barry says — with Theoharides taking on the role of primary designer.

The end result is something more than just slapping a pair of covers on top of a blog. Final Rose is a narrative blending dialogue and images in a unique way. It’s a book-length poem, an art book, and, yes, a comic book. Unlike some of the stuffier poetry publishers in the business, Barry doesn’t flinch when I describe Final Rose as a comic book. She believes it follows in a long tradition of poetry comics, combining tone and visuals and words in a way that’s reminiscent of Matthea Harvey’s visual work.

Something about the screenshots in Final Rose lends the images a feel of inauthenticity. Moving video of these stereotypically paradisiacal beaches and lush forests would convey a sense of escape, of heaven. When photographed professionally, these fertile landscapes would be endlessly appealing to viewers. But the screenshots — a single frame pulled from a fluid and moving image — make paradise look cheap and gaudy, like an overexposed postcard from the 1970s. You’ve never seen a sunset on a beach look so much like bad costume jewelry as you have in this book.

Likewise the captions on the page — these semi-digested chunks of reality-TV blather — read as even more forced than when they’re spoken aloud. When you hear an attractive person on TV talk about their heartache, some part of you can’t help but sympathize, no matter how banal they may sound sound. But when you see those words in all caps on top of one of those screencaps — “LOVE MEANS EVERYTHING TO ME,” for example — you can’t help but wonder: who the hell writes this shit?

The first illustrated page in Final Rose is of a forest, green and brown against a slightly smoggy skyline. “I AM SO FORTUNATE,” the caption reads. A few pages later, we see a castle’s spires poking out of a forest. It looks like it’s supposed to look grand, but there’s something almost boring about it. “I AM SO HOPEFUL FOR EVERYTHING,” the caption reads.

Is there anything that makes us question someone’s motives more than relentless positivity? Think of your Facebook friend who communicates only in exclamation points and references to how “#blessed” she is; do you really believe her? Or isn’t there a fetid whiff of desperation under all those wide-eyed selfies and eager affirmations? That is what the narrative voice of Final Rose conveys to its reader with the insistence on one four-page spread that

HARD WORK PAYS OFF

I’VE NEVER FELT BETTER THAN I DO RIGHT NOW

AT THIS POINT. I MEAN, I AM IN LOVE WITH THIS GUY

I WAS IN A REALLY DARK PLACE, BUT NOW IT’S DIFFERENT.

This really feels like protesting too much. Theoharides creates an unreliable narrator early on in Final Rose, a chipper voice that works way too hard at convincing itself that happiness is well in hand. A private jet sits in front of a spray of palm trees, on top of a large mud puddle. “AND I’M GETTING CLOSER TO THE HAPPY ENDING,” the caption reads. If at this point your every narrative alarm bell isn’t sounding off, you’ve probably never read a book before.

Paradises only exist in stories so we can be exiled from them, so that we can have a destination to aspire to. Love isn’t introduced in the first few pages of a book without an elaborate torture scheme in mind. Happiness is a bubble, and it is our instinct as humans and readers to pop that bubble, to bear witness to the nothingness that follows.

It would perhaps be easy to underestimate Theoharides’s curation skills. She is not screencapping at random moments, here. All these shots work hard to serve a greater aesthetic. You’ll see very few faces in Final Rose. The people are usually only seen at a distance, or obscured by a spray of bubbles (when scuba diving) or looking away from the camera. Most of the images don’t have a human being in them. It’s a phenomenally lonely book. Only at rare moments do we catch anything resembling a close-up glimpse of a person, and even then it’s a woman coyly looking downward, a smile curling the edges of her mouth.

And then comes the conflict, the popping of the bubble:

THIS IS MY FUTURE HUSBAND.

I MIGHT NOT BE SWEET ENOUGH FOR HIM.

IT HURTS.

I MIGHT DIE.

There is real torment in Final Rose, a desperate internal struggle to be the object of a man’s desire. And that phrase, “object of desire,” is not just intended as a bland cliché: the monologue seems to indicate a need to not just be desired, but to be desired as an object, as something unfeeling and solid and nonhuman.

Theoharides is not laughing at these women, but she’s not buying wholeheartedly into the narrative, either. By capturing just the right instants, and by arranging those instants, DJ-like, into a particular rhythm, she’s focusing those voices into something raw and angry and painfully self-aware. It’s some kind of miracle of transmogrification: the artificiality of the sets and staging and over-explanation all combine into something recognizably human. She has Frankensteined reality TV together into reality. Cries for help have never been so painfully gorgeous. They’re so beautiful that you never want them to stop.

Books in this review:
  • Final Rose
    by Halie Theoharides
    Mount Analogue
    October 01, 2016
    190 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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