MTV books? A practical joke, oxymoron or both? I conjecture that MTV execs revolted when Oprah conquered the bookworld (“only MTV can influence popular culture, dammit!”), so they struck back by producing MTV Books a sub-division of a legitimate, respected publishing house that introduces “young, hip” authors to the TRL fans who can read. All six of them.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of MTV Books

The latest offering is “The Foreigner,” a quick summer read by Meg Castaldo, a twenty-something Southern Californian transplanted to New York City. “The Foreigner” recounts the sordid adventures of a twenty-something Southern Californian transplanted in New York City. Hmmm.

The story unfolds as Alex, the hip, unfocused narrator, house-sits for her gay uncle, a feisty character who deserves far more attention than he receives, and meets her uncle”s bohemian neighbor, a Swedish import. Despite her uncle”s warnings to avoid entanglements with the Swede, Alex readily submits to her admitted weakness for foreign men.

Only a few days after Alex is seduced by the charming foreigner, she finds him brutally murdered in his apartment a somewhat fortunate break for Alex since her Belgian boyfriend Jan (pronounced “Yahn” and not to be confused with Marsha Brady”s annoying sister) is arriving in town the next week for a business trip. Is the Scandinavian victim the eponymous foreigner, or could it be the Belgian? Ah, suspense.

Alex tortures herself about the Swede”s death and lands in the middle of a “Law & Order” episode led by a handsome cop named Jacob. Just when the reader loses track of which guy is which, more males enter the picture.

Alex”s best friend from two days before surprises her by coming to NYC, ostensibly a pit stop on his long, twisted route across America as a drug addicted mooch. He acts strangely towards Alex, threatening her trust in him and forcing the reader to speculate: Does his odd behavior make him “the foreigner?”

Somewhat like MTV, the book is addicting, and I couldn”t help but read the entire novel in one sitting. One”s drive to finish the book derives from Castaldo”s stubborn refusal to reveal too much about the characters and their roles in the murder. On the one hand, this skillfully keeps the reader curious and involved. As Alex and the reader constantly question who the real foreigner is, we also question who”s good and who”s bad. Indeed, Castaldo knows how to recreate convincingly real dialogue and captures the reactions of an indecisive naf to a frightening situation accurately.

On the other hand, the author loses this realistic touch, and the writing becomes uneven. She waffles between reality and fantasy, autobiography and fiction, so frequently, the effect is jarring. A representative example: “Once, at Neiman Marcus, a female colleague had asked me: “How does it feel to be beautiful?” When people think you”re beautiful, you work at being nice.” I work at controlling my gag reflex.

Earlier in the chapter where this awkward passage appears, Alex”s anxieties at meeting her European boyfriend after a long separation are beginning to surface (completely plausible worries). But these reflections on her stunning beauty do not reflect the doubt she supposedly feels. No real woman, struggling to define herself against the chaos of NYC, trying to extinguish latent insecurities, would stand before a mirror remembering that she is the envy of all women. Such gross literary missteps compel me to turn against the protagonist.

Just two women besides Alex are featured in the book, and only incidentally. One woman dates Alex”s best friend and is a fashion model as well as a sniper for an African army, while the other is a bitchy, possessive co-worker. The only woman who resembles anything real would be Alex, the proxy for the author. But of course.

Although I much prefer Stephen Chbosky”s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” a compelling book published by MTV in 1999, if you can get through an uneven story speckled with passages that make you wince from embarrassment, “The Foreigner” is a passable beach book a small, lightweight, and entertaining novel.

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