Avatar No. 19

From the Shelf

AVATAR wouldn't be so dull if it were shorter, smaller and edited. The good material vanishes amid oblique and repetitious prose, endless columns of gray type and vast expanses of droning mysticism.

Good writing accounts for about 10% of the total acreage in issue number 19. Skip Ascheim's front-page report on proceedings of the Massachusetts Legislature's education committee is successful satire because it maintains an objectivity which most Avatar writing never achieves. Noting that few of the committeemen investigating misconduct of University of Massachusetts students could "speak English." Ascheim observes:

They talk a kind of pseudo-legalese, parliamentary jargon which must have been perfected through several generations of responsible legislators. I felt like an anthropologist stranded in a strange alien ceremony without an interpreter.

"Birth of a Witch Hunt" gives a view of a public controversy which no other publication could provide, and indicates how effective Avatar could be if it devoted more space to matters other than its own persecution.

Stephen Lerner's record of a night in jail, arrested for selling Avatar, is a model of the tone the paper's writers usually miss. However, by over-working the February 5 mass arrest on the six preceding pages--because of editorial lack of coordination--the effect of this fine piece is blunted.

The issue's most engaging writing is the description by "Melinda" of an old man talking a child out of a bag of jelly beans: "The old man was talking a blue streak all about just how bad and dangerous jelly beans could be, especially if you were a little kid and didn't quite know how to handle them yet."

As interesting, though more grotesque, is an untitled two-paragraph selection in section one, page seven, describing in Poe-like terms "some kind of a funny growth thing happening with my body." Avatar's style is suited only to these short pieces, and to the notes-and-comment column entitled "Patchwork."

If length or first-person narration doesn't ruin an Avatar article, lack of direction will. For example, just when we expect John Wilton (in "Avatar a Newspaper at Last") to define the paper's objects, he wanders off to explain why he got a haircut.

Mel Lyman's monotony provides the best single argument for the seen-one-Avatar-you've-seen-'em-all school of criticism. Lyman may be the moving spirit behind Avatar, but he's as fascinating as the twenty-fifth installment of "The Playboy Philosophy." Avatar number 19, moreover, presents him in 28 not-so-different poses: God was never so overpublicized.

Avatar overflows with paranoia in reacting to its oppressor, "the establishment," and hurls hackneyed epithets ("mass media," "dying already half-dead social order") at whoever. "the establishment is." Even WGBH is part of the tyrannical "commercial complex." A column by "Jeremy" carries this irrationality to the extreme, blaming the war rhetoric of General Westmoreland and the new Defense Secretary, "Clark M. Gifford" (sic), on the Record-American.

Issue number 19 makes liking Avatar difficult. When Cambridge stops suppressing it, and people stop buying Avatar out of sympathy, its editors will have to either improve the paper or rely, for survival, on pity.