Richard Peabody is the editor of Gargoyle Magazine (founded in 1976) and has published a novella, two books of short stories, six books of poems, and edited (or co-edited) fourteen anthologies. He teaches fiction writing for the Johns Hopkins Advanced Studies Program.
"Outside of dildos and Tupperware, pieces of molded plastic have rarely been known to trigger such intense brain activity."
"Weird, funny, and surprisingly provoking."
"A funny, irreverent, and sometimes shocking look at Barbie's function as national icon . . . an unusually entertaining collection."
"A hilarious, offbeat, irreverent, and occasionally frightening anthology of just what nine inches of plastic injection-molding technology has wrought."
In the mid-Nineties, I started actually trying to be a writer. I had long cultivated a kind of writerly aesthetic — I carried paperbacks around, argued about books and writers, looked down at people who read Tom Clancy books, aimed for a generally rumpled but semi-intellectual kind of look — but had rarely if ever actually sat down to write. That started to change around about the time when, loafing off at Dupont Circle’s Second Story Books on my lunch hour, I stumbled upon Mondo Barbie.
The cover stood out right away: the word “Barbie” in signature pink. But not normal Barbie — Mondo Barbie. What the hell did that mean? I wasn’t sure, but it definitely sounded like the kind of thing a writer would dig. “An Anthology of Fiction and Poetry.” Definitely the kind of thing a writer would be reading. “Edited by Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole.” I checked the back cover. They looked like some kind of new wave punk band — tough but smart, vaguely futuristic, a little angry about something. They looked kind of like the Eurythmics. In any case, they didn’t look anything like Sherwood Anderson or Larry McMurtry or William Kennedy or any of the people who had written any of the books I was reading at the time. Even from the cover, it was clear that Mondo Barbie was something different.
I read the first story, “A Real Doll,” by A.M. Homes. It begins simply enough: “I’m dating Barbie.” Oh, a story about a guy dating a girl named Barbie, just like the doll, right? But no, that’s not what it was at all:
“I popped her whole head into my mouth, and Barbie’s hair separated into single strands like Christmas tinsel and caught in my throat, nearly choking me. I could taste layer on layer of makeup, Revlon, Max Factor, and Maybelline. I closed my mouth around Barbie and could feel her breath in mine. I could hear her screams in my throat. Her teeth, white, Pearl Drops, Pepsodent, and whole Osmond family, bit my tongue and the inside of my cheek like I might accidentally bite myself. I closed my mouth around her neck and helf her suspended, her feet uselessly kicking the air in front of my face.”
Holy shit, are we ever not in Winesburg, Ohio anymore. Everything about this was so different from anything I had read before — the mingling of pop culture and “real” literature, the use of brand names (just like in real life!), the deadpan humor, the very bad things the narrator is doing to his sister’s doll, all of it (along with George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, which I bought in the same store, if not on the same day) simply blew my mind. Holy shit, literature could be fun. It could be funny. It could be really, really weird. It could be a whole bunch of different things, all at once.
From “A Real Doll,” the anthology goes off in a million different directions. There are poems, essays, literary fiction that stays in more familiar territory, and a lot of fiction the likes of which I had never read before. There were familiar names like Alice McDermott and Julia Alvarez, and names that would become familiar, like Denise Duhamel and Richard Grayson. There were people who were possibly never heard from again alongside none other than the future Poet Laureate of the United States, Philip Levine.
There was a lot of talk about Ken’s unfortunate nether region, most of it laugh out loud funny and somehow sad at the same time, like this segment from Richard Grayson’s amazing “Twelve Step Barbie:”
“A Cambodian girl asks her about condoms, and Barbie’s mind flashes back to Ken. With Ken, of course, condoms were never an issue.”
At the time, it was the craziest book I’d ever read. Now, almost twenty years later, I recognize it as a Richard Peabody project. (I should note here that Richard is a friend, a former teacher, and all around literary role model. My first published story appeared in Richard’s Gargoyle, and it was written to a prompt in his Experimental Fiction class). Richard has been doing this for decades, first with Gargoyle and also with the many anthologies he’s edited (including Alice Redux, which gives Alice in Wonderland the Mondo Barbie treatment, Kiss the Sky, which features work about or inspired by Jimi Hendrix, and many anthologies celebrating the work of DC-based writers and poets). A Richard Peabody project will be eclectic, stuffed to the brim with work of all flavors and styles, a crazy goulash of poetry and fiction and essay and unclassifiable stuff all blended together in a way that somehow just works.
A quick digression: Gargoyle recently printed their fifty-seventh issue. Fifty-seven! We’re finalizing Barrelhouse issue ten and we can’t believe that we’ve been able to keep on doing this as long as we have. Richard and Gargoyle have us beat by forty seven issues.
One of the cool things about Mondo Barbie is seeing what a disparate group of writers can do when you give them a subject and no restrictions at all. They can take something as vacuous as an omnipresent plastic doll and turn it into art that is personal, funny, real, creepy, unexpected, and affecting. And a hell of a lot of fun.