Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving Weekend Book Review: House of Cards by David Ellis Dickerson

When Hallmark lured David Ellis Dickerson to a Kansas City interview, they offered him a potential starting salary of $27,000. After interviewing him in person, they upped their offer to $32,000. “To this day,” writes Dickerson, “I am convinced that in person, I am $5,000 more charming than I am on paper.” (p 49)

I suspect this motivates the choice to promote Dickerson’s new book, House of Cards: Love, Faith, and Other Social Expressions (Riverhead Books, 2009), with a series of videos called Greeting Card Emergency. Dickerson’s audience provides him with a decidedly un-Hallmark-like greeting card scenario, such as breaking a friend’s toilet or letting your snake eat someone else’s hamster. Dickerson then documents the process of creating a suitable card.

This promotion seems to be working. I’ve seen Greeting Card Emergencies reposted on a number of well-trafficked blogs and the videos inspired me to purchase Dickerson’s book.

House of Cards is a memoir of Dickerson’s experience with the Hallmark card company, documenting the period of time between when Dickerson first hears about nearby Hallmark interviews through the time when he decides to leave Hallmark for the presumably greener, warmer, and more licentious pastures of a Ph.D. program in Florida. Along the way, the book also documents Dickerson’s journey from fundamentalism to atheism.

There are three major reasons to recommend this book:

1) David Ellis Dickerson may be more charming in person, but he’s charming on paper, too. The memoir’s light, easy writing style makes for a fast and fun read.

2) The memoir provides an intriguing (if not wholly satisfying) case study about how a fundamentalist upbringing affects a twenty-something who has lost his faith. At the beginning of the memoir, twenty-seven-year-old Dickerson has already converted to Catholicism, become liberal, and started supporting feminism and gay rights. However, he still feels that he and his fiancée must avoid sex until marriage, a conviction that shifts during the course of the book until, after the pair break up, twenty-eight-year-old Dickerson is left trying to lose his virginity approximately a decade after most of his peers.

3)It’s a great deal of fun to read about Dickerson’s work process and word play. The memoir is peppered with his silly poetry, including a love poem about free popcorn:

The popcorn that thou givest unto me
Bringeth emotions I can scarcely utter.
For thou art like this popcorn that I see:
Lively and fresh, though thou contain’st less butter.
And in the carbonated beverage, too,
Which, like the popcorn, thou bestow’st for free,
Though it consist of Brown Dye Number Two,
In it, I see thy hair, and think on thee.
My Pepsi tab would founder many banks.
I can’t repay you; please accept my thanks.

(p 18)

In chapter nine (How to Write a Card), Dickerson details the process of taking a Hallmark card category, brainstorming ideas for it, and proposing a suitable card (which editors subsequently reject or accept). He explains common card types, including cards that come with attachments like paper clips and golf tees, and cards that include pop-ups. This witty, informational sequence gives what the reader has been craving throughout the book.

The memoir suffers some flaws. The first three chapters read like an unnecessarily long build-up: It’s unclear why the book begins before Dickerson even interviews with Hallmark instead of with his Kansas City interview or his first day as a new-hire. The book is called House of Cards; we’re here to read about Hallmark.

Even at Hallmark, the text lacks focus. It gives too little information about work process and too much about petty work woes. It’s not that the latter can’t be interesting grist for a memoir, but here they’re often rendered in long narrative sequences that could be summed up faster. Work events begin to feel repetitive. Worse, they take up space that might have been devoted to Dickerson’s evolving spirituality. After all, there’s more to the journey away from fundamentalism than sex.

From a feminist perspective, the text is mixed. There’s a lovely rant on page 135 defending female humorists, but in the same chapter Dickerson theorizes that women leave Hallmark’s humor department because they can’t handle the boss’s relative masculinity. It’s possible that Dickerson has evidence for this theory which didn’t make it into the text; however, given the available information, Dickerson comes across as condescending. Perhaps women leave because being the only female in that work environment is intolerable. Perhaps they leave because the boss acts sexist in ways that aren’t apparent when there are only male coworkers. Perhaps Dickerson should just ask the women involved?

Other scenes are similarly fraught. For instance, Dickerson’s fiancée is depicted as sex-averse, but this is never satisfactorily explored. From the details in the text, the fiancée appears to be suffering from some sort of sexual trauma*, but the narrative ignores that in order to focus on how angry Dickerson feels when she refuses to fulfill his romantic fantasies, such as a shared bath by candlelight. Perhaps Dickerson decided not to explore his fiancée’s perspective in more depth because he didn’t want to violate her privacy. This is a respectable reason, but the text still feels incomplete.

Of the many scenes discussing Dickerson’s sexuality, the most compelling is a flashback to his early twenties when he was still convinced masturbation was sinful. He discovered that voyeurism gave him an excuse to see women’s bodies “by accident” and thus without guilt. For this feminist reader, at least, the scene was extremely powerful because one identifies with Dickerson’s need to navigate his sexuality within his repressive culture. At the same time, one recognizes that this is an example of how otherwise reasonable, pro-feminist men contribute to the rape culture.

Despite its flaws, House of Cards is an entertaining, engaging read full of whimsical word play. Dickerson’s memoir may not meet every possible literary expectation – what does? – but it’s fun to listen to the man talk, even on paper.


*I might have read her as asexual except for a scene in which she reacted defensively to Dickerson’s attempts to touch her shoulders while she washed dishes. This read to me as a post-traumatic reaction; others’ interpretations may differ. In any case, the absence of any attempt on the part of the text to understand her sex-averse behavior – whatever its cause – was a noticeable lack.


Timmi Duchamp said...

Wow. Fascinating to think that most of the people at Hallmark (almost a synonym for "feminine" sentimentality) are guys, and that it's such a guy culture!

Rachel Swirsky said...

Actually, it's not! I'm sorry for giving that impression. It's just the *humor department* that's masculine -- although that itself is odd! There are women in the other departments. They may even be in the majority (I don't remember specifically, although I think he does specify about a few of the departments what their gender ratios are).