Like, Not Brutally Tragic

Slate readers demanded that Dan Kois review a Clueless spin-off. In it he found a bittersweet reminder of how publishing used to be.

Still of Alicia Silverstone and Stacey Dash in Clueless
Stacey Dash and Alicia Silverstone in Clueless

Photograph © 1995 Paramount.

So obviously the first question to answer about Cher and Cher Alike—the 1997 Clueless spin-off novel assigned to me for review by Slate’s readers in our Reader Takeover—has to be: Is it canon? The answer is more complicated than you might expect.

No, Cher and Cher Alike does not follow logically on the heels of Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s 1995 cinematic masterpiece, starring Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz. While De, Murray, and Tai reappear in the novel, Josh—played in the film by a young, dewy-eyed Paul Rudd—has no place in Cher’s heart. At the end of Clueless, you’ll recall, Cher and Josh have fallen in love. In Cher and Cher Alike, they are once again squabbling stepsiblings; there’s no sign that the two had ever kissed atop the Horowitz family’s marble-and-wrought-iron staircase. Indeed, for fans of the movie, Cher’s description of Josh is devastatingly offhand: “De has always thought the boy was a full-on Baldwin. Which, strictly in the looks division, he may be, but he is way lacking in the killer charisma of the brothers Alec, Billy, and Daniel.”

However! Cher and Cher Alike, it turns out, does fall within the continuity of the 1996-1999 TV series Clueless, which of course aired on ABC before moving to UPN and starred Rachel Blanchard as Cher. (Other cast members, like future Scrub Donald Faison, abused Romney endorser Stacey Dash, and genius playwright Wallace Shawn, did return.) But however again, Cher and Cher Alike bears only superficial similarities to the Season 3 Clueless episode “Cher and Cher Alike,” a proto-Glee written and directed by actress Julie Brown that centered on a production of Grease at Bronson Alcott High. It’s all super-complicated and I can see why you’d be confused.

Just as the original Clueless was a sun-kissed revamp of Emma, so is Cher and Cher Alike a reworking of Frankenstein, a book Cher gets pretty excited about once Josh gives her the lowdown. After all, “Mary Shelley was an actual Uma; a brutally popular babe with like this immense Alanis Morissette-type brain who hung with the foremost poet Baldwins of her day, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley.” In this telling, Cher is Victor and grimy “grunge goddess” Sharon is the monster, who—after Cher makes her over and brings her to life—rebels against her creator, destroying everything she loves.

On the book’s first page, Cher’s English teacher is trying to get the class’s attention, but, as Cher puts it, “It was like, ‘Pronouns and adverbs? I don’t think so.’ ” But in truth, Cher has no problem with adverbs, and Cher and Cher Alike is something of a master class in awkward adverbial overuse. Let’s take Page 26!

The Complete Adverbs of Page 26 of Cher and Cher Alike

“I was arduously creating this amazing hockey cheer.”
“Amber, you’re a totally major talent.”
“Sharon was bitterly distraught.”
“The girl was actually crying so copiously …”
“Her mascara was viciously streaking her face.”
Her ponytails bobbed emphatically.
“Sharon was unabashedly in his face.”

Of course, none of these literally hold a candle to what may be my favorite adverb usage in the history of American literature, this Tom Swifty gone haywire: “I snapped open my phone and called De. ‘Let’s rendezvous outside Hanratty’s class, girlfriend,’ I cellularly suggested.”

The novel is rich with dated references that remind you of how young we all once were. The phones are Motorolas; Josh listens to the Wallflowers; Cher reads Sassy. Oh, and girlfriend, you’ll be buggin’ when you peep this description of the two boys after Cher’s heart:

Raphael was all East Coast pale, a dreamy Johnny Depp with excellently styled dark locks. But Lucas, in his clean J. Crew togs, sun-bleached hair, and surfer’s tan, was like the total preppie poster boy for California Dreamin’, a golden Chris O’Donnell riding a rugged Keanu edge.

That J. Crew mention is no accident. Cher and Cher Alike is rife with label-dropping. It’s all perfectly in character for Cher, so I’m not sure that this is a case of paid product placement. (Except for the Kula Shaker reference; nothing but Sony payola could be responsible for the fact that those “post-Oasis U.K. sensations” hit all of Cher’s “vintage-Brit-pop buttons.”) But it does lead to wonderful moments like this one, which I think of as intentionally unintentionally hilarious—high drama undercut by Cher’s oblivious voice: “My best friend’s hazel eyes narrowed into this evil squinchie, and turning on her choice suede sandals by Nathalie M., she stalked away.”

Cher and Cher Alike is part of the long and proud tradition of spin-off novels: books and book-like objects published, usually on the cheap, to satisfy the legions of hungry fans who demanded more officially licensed stories about Cher Horowitz, or Luke Skywalker, or Dylan McKay. The novels were written by authors tangentially (or not at all) related to the property in question, many of whom churned out dozens or hundreds of these books over the course of their careers.

It’s a testament to the resiliency of the source material that Cher and Cher Alike is not a brutally tragic read. But it’s also a testament to author H.B. Gilmour, who wrote not only nine Clueless novels but also, per Wikipedia, spin-offs or novelizations based on Saturday Night Fever, All That Jazz, Pretty in Pink, Godzilla, and Clarissa Explains It All. Cher and Cher Alike is densely idiomatic, as if Alicia Silverstone’s voice-over from Clueless went on for 163 pages. But Gilmour pulls off Cher’s batty, pop- and fashion-drenched voice, despite the fact that she was 58 years old when she wrote the novel. (She died in 2009.)

Author H.B. Gilmour

Author H.B. Gilmour

wikimedia commons

Though Cher and Cher Alike is not a good book, per se, it’s substantially better than it needed to be, and there’s something heartening about that. The story moves, sure of foot, through its beats. Certain moments—as when Sharon declares that from now on she will be known as “Shar,” and the entire gang repeats “Cher?” like “Who’s On First” for a new, dumber generation—replicate the original film’s warm daffiness. And Cher herself remains, adverbs and all, good at heart. Per Wikipedia, H.B. Gilmour spent most of her career working full-time as an editor and marketing exec at Bantam, writing books on the side, and raising a daughter on her own. She was a pro. She’s surely the only writer who ever published works based on both Fatal Attraction and Fraggle Rock. Once upon a time, if you were funny and sharp and could hit a deadline, there was a place for you in the world of publishing, so hungry was the American consumer for words, words, words. I’m not sure that’s as true now.

Though spin-off novels still exist, our favorite characters’ second lives now play out online. Thanks to fan fiction, you can even read about Cher and Josh doing things their corporate overlords would never let you see them do. Books like Cher and Cher Alike are relics of a lost age of publishing, made by writers scribbling for a paycheck for editors who likely never read them, and now pulped or lost or scattered among America’s Goodwills. They were disposable. They were absurd. They were, in the words of Cher, “your basic portable, rectangular objects teeming with pages.” I will miss them.

Clueless™: Cher and Cher Alike by H.B. Gilmour. Archway Paperbacks/Pocket Books.

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