Viva is the teenage protagonist of Emma Forrest’s novel "Namedropper". When reading her portrayal of her friend Treena, a saying comes to mind: With friends like that, who needs enemies?
About the author
Emma Forrest was born in London in 1976, but presently lives and works in New York. As a child she was a hyperactive girl constantly testing her parents’ patience. In her teens she suffered from an eating disorder, she was depressed and started cutting herself. In “Namedropper”, the narrator, 16-year old Viva Cohen, carries a striking resemblance to the author. Emma Forrest dropped out of school before her GCSE, and at 16, while her peers were conscienciously listening to their teachers, she kick-started her career as a journalist in the Evening Standard and the Sunday Times.
Five years later she created her heroine Viva Cohen in her first novel, “Namedropper”. Viva attends a private school, but the school uniform is just a disguise, underneath she hides her vintage stockings and knickers. Her no.1 preoccupation is her icons, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. In real life she has just a handful of friends. One of them is the stunningly beautiful Treena. This is how Viva depicts her friend in the introductory chapter of the novel.
The title of this novel and the content of the following excerpt are closely linked. In other words, the narrator Viva, does a lot of namedropping. Sit in pairs and go through the following list of names and terms used in the text. Explain the ones you already recognize to your partner and look the rest up on the internet. A simple image search will often be enough.
Namedropping from the excerpt
- Marilyn Monroe
- Elizabeth Taylor
- "They read Cosmopolitan"
- "He's got a Star Trek haircut"
- "rows of flowery Doc Martens"
- "a Steely Dan record"
- "like it's [from] Tiffany's"
- Michael Jackson
- Mike Tyson
- Jennifer Aniston
- Clara Bow
- "part Jayne Mansfield, part Muhammad Ali"
Excerpt from "Namedropper" as plain text
From Chapter One
Treena doesn't want to know about boys or pain or pictures of dead actresses. The irony being that Treena has the looks of a silver-screen goddess. She doesn't know the films of Marilyn Monroe, but she thinks she knows who I'm talking about. She can picture a blonde from the olden days. "Dead blonde?" she asks, making it sound like a new shade of hair dye. She hasn't seen any Elizabeth Taylor movies either, but, from my walls, she knows that she's the one with black hair, who's still alive. Treena definitely hasn't heard of Ava Gardner, Cyd Charisse, Gina Lollobrigida, Jane Russell, or Lauren Bacall, but I have and that's all that matters.
Treena is her own movie goddess. Even when she's asleep, she is the Eve Arnold photo of Marilyn Monroe dressed in leopard print, lying on her tummy in the bull rushes. She never works out or reads a book, but her body and mind stay firm-Mrican bottom, Swedish porno breasts, and blond curly hair emerging from curly thoughts. If I tell her she should read this novel, or that autobiography, she holds it in her hand for a minute, weighing it up and down, and then passes it back, smirking. "There, read it. You're right. It was good.”
First-year girls don't want to look like Treena. They think she looks rude. The girls at school who are considered pretty look like colts in cults, all gangly limbs and blank expressions.
They read Cosmopolitan and don't eat. Treena has to eat a pound of salad a day or she can't sleep. She eats it because she likes the taste.
She's always lived next door to the hardest state school in North London. Every now and then the school kids try to beat her up for being too pretty. Walking up Parkway, past the toy shop with the angry dogoutside, along the grungy pubs populated by spitty old men and teenage girls wearing peep-toe stilettos in the dead of winter, it's just too scary to face Treena.
You feel you ought to hit her, or hide her. I've wanted to. She doesn't have to walk like that, so arrogant and sexy. She doesn't have to glare "I know" under the lashes of her long green eyes. She needn't laugh at the common people as they scuttle by.>br>"What do you think of him?" I'll ask, pointing at a bowlhaired bassist from some indie band or other. "No thank you!
He's got a Star Trek haircut. He looks like a Romulan." Suddenly, her attention is focused on him and she calls across the street, "Hey, monkey Romulan, sort it out!”
As we turn on to Camden Lock and the market, my nose wrinkles up, assaulted by the foul odour of incense and half cooked hot dogs. Treena loves it, never tires of the racks of tiedyed dungarees and rows of flowery Doc Martens. Every day she makes us late for school, thumbing through the boxes of seven inches and knock-off cassettes.
"Veeve, have you got any money?”
"Not for a Steely Dan record, I don't.”
Now, there is no reason for a seventeen-year-old girl to like the stuff she likes. It's not like she's influenced by her parents' records, because all they have is dinner-party music-George Michael and Seal. Treena likes her hip-hop, knows it inside out, shakes her head, sighing, "I can't believe you've never heard Run DMC's first album." She gets it from her suitors, who are almost always DJs and club promoters.
But every now and then she has these inexplicable blips. It's like she came out of a pod liking Steely Dan.
Even when she buys really tacky shit, it never drags her down. She forks out three pounds for a crappy cannabis-leaf earring, but she carries it off like it's Tiffany's. She is an irredeemable peace-and-Iove chick, which proves how dumb she is. She's not interested in the politics and mechanics of love and peace, just the enamel-plated peace-sign ankle chain.
That is her gesture for world peace, and she means it with the utmost sincerity.
She'll sign any petition presented to us between her house and school: Anti-Nazi League, Anti-Vivisection League, Anti-Israel, Anti-Palestine. She'll give her change to the Lifeboat Institute or the Scientologists, whoever asks her for a donation first. A charity tin is a charity tin. She believes what people tell her.
When her brother was born, her parents tried their best to make their hyper little girl feel a part of the event. "Tom is our gift to you.”
"Thank you," said Treena, plucking him from his crib in the half minute her mother was out of the room, and depositing him neatly in the push bin. "I don't like him. He doesn't work. I want a real one, a Cabbage Patch Kid.”
Treena doesn't have that many friends apart from me and Marcus, who she met at a Wu-Tang Clan gig at The Rocket and who has been in love with her ever since. He doesn't say a lot, maybe "a'ight?" or a nervous-sounding "Peace," as ifhe is genuinely expecting war to break out. It seems like he wants to say more, but this is all his position will allow him, the same way Michael Jackson may want to address his fans truthfully, but all he ever does is wave and squeak "I love you!”
I've never had a real conversation with Marcus. When we pass in Treena's hallway, he nods and sometimes smiles, flashing teeth so bright white and ostentatious gold, they look like a Versace outfit. Marcus has a long, slim nose with a bump at the top like a tortoise-shell cat. His lids are heavy and his bottom lip is thicker than his top lip. He's a very good-looking boy. He could have any fly girl he wanted. But he wants Treena. He is kind to her, rings her every day after school, rings her before she goes to sleep, sends her funny postcards for no reason, takes her to dinner whenever he can afford it and whenever he can't afford it. He worships and adores her.
And she hates him for it. She hates it so much that she refuses to acknowledge his feelings, not even to me. Amongst the hate crimes she has committed against him:
1. Urinated on the carpeted floor of his bedroom because she was too lazy to go to the bathroom.
2. Spat cranberry juice in his eyes because DJ Flex had given her cystitis and she wanted Marcus to be as sore as she was.
3. Had him stroke her hand when she was vomiting all night from the morning-after pill necessitated by her one-night stand with the aforementioned DJ.
As she jabbers away, he just watches her. Raised on the first London estate to fall to crack, he is less frightened of Treena than most people who meet her.
A beautiful woman is scary enough. But a beautiful, crazy person . .. it's too much. They are bad luck. They are Marilyn, Frances Farmer, and Blanche DuBois. They are not nice to be around. Treena's saving grace is that her eccentricities are thoroughly unfeminine. It's a very masculine craziness.
No nervous neuroses, no facial ticks and Valium. Just all-out, blow-the-whole-joint-up lunacy. When she was thirteen, she tried to make some extra money baby-sitting for the couple across the street, but it didn't work out.
''I'm sorry, I don't think I can baby-sit again. I wanted to kill your children," she explained, smoothing her blouse.
"Oh, dear," gasped the mortified mother. "Were they really that naughty?”
"Oh, no," smiled Treena, "not at all. They went to bed at eight and slept like lambs. But about nine, I got the urge to kill them, and I had to grip the sides of the sofa to stop myself from going into the kitchen and picking up a knife. It's passed now. Nevertheless, it's probably best not to ask me round while you're out." .
She tried work as a hairdresser's assistant, but was appalled when the customers had fixed ideas of how they wanted to look.
"Really, you'll look better with short red hair, I promise.
You have quite an ugly face. It will distract attention from it.”
Before she could be fired , she stormed out, disgusted that she was expected to sweep the clumps of hacked hair from the floor.
She has no sense of there being different leagues. She'd pick a fight with Mike Tyson if she thought he was looking at her funny. She doesn't think that because she is on a scholarship she has any duty to perform well academically, or even behave well. Exam after exam, she lays her head on the paper and naps, or spends the hour and a half doodling. Nothing offensive, just a cheery, balloon-lettered "HELLO!" to the examiner, or a cartoon of a pig with long eyelashes.
Treena's real name is Katerina. She is Swedish but takes it with good grace. I don't mind her being a blonde because at least she sticks by it, she knows what she is. One ought to be proud of one's hair colour and be the best blonde/brunette/redhead one can be. That's the trouble with America today their sex symbols have no hair colour. What colour is Jennifer Aniston's hair? That really pisses me off.
Treena tosses her golden ringlets over her five-foot-nine frame, raises a defined eyebrow over a kitty-kat eye, smacks her Clara Bow lips beneath an aristocratic nose, and sighs as if being gorgeous was not a task to be undertaken lightly. The teachers try very hard not to look at her. She doesn't see her height or weight or breasts as being in any way restricting her adventures. She doesn't understand that she's a girl and she's supposed to be afraid of striking up conversations with drunken gangs of football fans holding broken bottles or of cutting through parks alone at night. She's so confident about her right to be there that the boys address her politely and even the ill-lit parks back down.
It's all in her walk, a cartoon swagger, part Jayne Mansfield, part Muhammad Ali. Men never know if it is an invitation upstairs or an invitation outside. You should see her strutting through the underpass from Marcus's council house to the tube. The cracked walls of the tunnel quake as she approaches and the bricks seem to stare as she passes.