By Dubravka Ugrešic, Trans. David Williams
For the uninitiated, Dubravka Ugrešić’s essay collection Karaoke Culture provides an emblematic, if occasionally disjointed, snapshot of the author’s notable body of work. Available now just a year after its initial publication (very unusual for a translated work), Karaoke Culture is a timely collection on topics from the rise of participatory culture and “the anonymous artist” (the title essay), the preferred nomenclature and adopted personas of third wave feminists (“Bitches”), the “psychopathology” of reflexively loving a homeland you didn’t choose (“No Country for Old Women”), and a personal reflection on the vicious media harassment which led Ugrešić to emigrate from the newly-formed Croatian state to the Netherlands in 1993 (“A Question of Perspective”).
Reading Karaoke Culture is—in the best way possible—much like sitting with a highly caffeinated intellectual over tea. Ugrešić is a conversational writer; the zig-zagging structure of her essays suggests a fluid writing process that hews close to the author’s thoughts as she works from each initial observation to a final, incisive epiphany. Her cultural touchstones are restricted neither by country nor time nor genre: within the collection she makes easy reference to everything from Gone with the Wind and IKEA to Bulgarian Idol and Henry Darger. When these disparate references cohere within one essay, the effect is luminous. Only rarely within the dense collection does Ugrešić’s elliptical logic-dart miss its mark, leaving a few of the essays feeling somewhat over-determined.
The 22 essays in Karaoke Culture read fast—several are only two or three pages—but the collection rewards rumination. On first reading, it might appear that Ugrešić is herself channel-surfing, hopping among divergent topics to simply cover as much ground as possible. But so much the better. Here she diagnoses contemporary culture in all its facets, underlying the parallels between ideologies and societies that have long understood themselves to be diametrically opposed.
Throughout the collection, Ugrešić’s outspoken, absurdist humor and her genuinely global perspective shine through. Karaoke Culture is a rarity: a thoughtful, personal and informative work of socio-cultural critique that doesn’t take itself too seriously.