Racket

For years, the zine underground has produced a vast array of forums for every obsession you can think of (and many you'd rather not), but lately it's started to produce something else: book deals. The first three issues of Jim and Debbie Goad's incendiary Answer Me! are available in bound form; Pagan Kennedy's 'Zine chronicles her six years of publishing the self-obsessed Pagan's Head; and not one but two Rollerderby-related books are available for your reading pleasure. The irony of this is that many people start zines because self-publishing seems like the only option for getting their unorthodox, and occasionally pathological, opinions to the greater public; that some of these very people are now talking advances and percentages with mainstream publishers is either just desserts or just weird. Furthermore, it's possible that soon enough, enterprising young Cheevers and Chomskys will junk the grad-school gig and, instead, start their own zines for a quicker entree to the publishing world.

That said, though, if ever there was a zine that deserved to live on in perfect-bound, pH-neutral eminence, it's Beer Frame, "The Journal of Inconspicuous Consumption." This digest-size affair has been a forum for the obsessions of writer and bowling aficionado Paul Lukas since 1993, and is now the basis for Inconspicuous Consumption, a "best of" anthology. Beer Frame is a review zine, but unlike most others of its kind, which tend to focus on music or even on other zines, it comprises in-depth reviews of strange foods, interesting product packaging or goofy marketing angles, and unheralded organizations and services. CDs and books are reviewed not on the basis of sound or content, but on the strength (or weakness) of their physical appearance.

Beer Frame, like other review zines, actually amounts to a public service of sorts -- scrutinizing a universe of things like sauerkraut juice so that you, the lazy consumer, don't have to. Lukas isn't always able to definitively answer the question of who buys the stuff, as he's more concerned with the one that logically follows: Who makes it? He delves gamely into the history of each product. The cheery phone chats with various manufacturers, marketing chiefs, and PR lackeys that punctuate the reviews underscore his interest in not only sampling the often bizarre offerings of our nation and others, but situating them in the larger context of consumerism.

Lukas defines inconspicuous consumption as "noticing certain aspects of products and services we might otherwise overlook, things that are either so obscure that we never see them or so ubiquitous that we've essentially stopped seeing them." This sort of broad subjectivity means that everything from Pringles to mousetraps to a livestock experiment called the Pig Improvement Company can fit the bill, and is reviewed accordingly. By perusing those products, goods, and services that seem either too bizarre to accept or too obvious to take note of, Lukas examines the machinations of consumer culture itself, with all of its attendant PR flimflammery, irrelevant sales tactics, and occasional brilliance.

Of course, Lukas' almost reverent commodification of everything he inspects may not sit well with some people -- those who believe that the Grand Canyon is a natural wonder, for example, or that the Green Bay Packers is a football team. If commerce is at all involved, it's a product. "If the team is the product, then uniforms function as the package design," declares Lukas in a review of the Packers' outfits, which garner high ratings. "Moreover, for those of us who enjoy watching steroid-pumped morons chasing a little ball for millions of dollars, uniform design is a crucial element in our visual landscape."

This cynical glee also applies to his treatment of Project "Young One," an anti-abortion program that provides models of 11-week-old fetuses to clinics, schools, and churches for display. Lukas, however, finds that the plastic fetuses make excellent Christmas tree ornaments. "While the model's accompanying literature claims that the 'Young One' has been a very successful antiabortion tool, thereby demonstrating that 'God has unique ways to save His children,' my two felines' enthusiastic reaction to this product shows that God also provides us with some irresistible cat toys just when we're least expecting it."

The sheer obsessiveness with which Lukas examines these products is sometimes draining -- just imagine a trip to the mall in his company -- but his omnivorous approach makes him the ultimate consumer diplomat. Most people who consider themselves refined wouldn't go within 10 feet of a Twinkie, much less sample a batch in seven cities across the country in an attempt to find out whether the cream-filling recipe has changed. Lukas imposes none of the limitations -- of class, taste, hipness -- that often constrain the range of what people allow themselves to experience and appreciate. Even notorious smartass Steve Albini, who penned the book's foreword, seems cowed by the monumentality of the man's fascination; the closest he can get to joining in is to speak of his own connection to the world of "things" like a spiritual revelation. Though this isn't what one might expect from Albini, he's not as far off as it sounds. Because while Inconspicuous Consumption is in itself a triumph of consumerism -- after all, what could be more reflexively consumptive than buying a book devoted to consuming? -- it's also proof that people create sanctity where they see fit. And if Lukas happens to illuminate a stainless-steel toothpick dispenser called the Dial-A-Pick, who are we to argue? It'll do nicely, at least until the collected Crap Hound comes along.

By Andi Zeisler

 
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