By Ben Elton
According to Ben Elton, England is going down the tubes and it's all reality television's fault. Once a proud nation that resolutely stood up to the Nazis during the Battle of Britain and stared imminent annihilation in the face with cool determination and a stiff upper lip. British men were made of moxy and steel and their women, well, they were made of moxy and steel, too! Winston Churchill defiantly proclaimed that:
"We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."
Immortal words from one of the great modern statesmen. Britain would stand proud for another thousand years thanks to Churchill's (and Britain's) resolve.
Just a half-century later and we have an entirely different generation with entirely different values and an entirely different vocabulary. It's probably worth lamenting, if it weren't so damned funny. In Dead Famous, Ben Elton's highly improbable, post-post-modern novel about a preposterous reality television program, characters have insanely amped up names such as Woggle or Gazzer or Moon, probably don't know where to buy Winston Churchill brand cigarettes if you asked them and speak like this:
"Woggle, he da man! Da top man. Respect! But the whole show is totally wicked, so fair play to all the posse in the house. Kelly's my girl, Oojah, Oojah!"There's a lot in that quote I really don't understand. I can't imagine that anyone, anywhere actually talks like this, but if there is, I never want to meet him or her. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer eloquence.
Now, I should have known I wasn't going to like a book that featured characters with names like Woggle or Gazzer or Moon, especially one that centered on a third-rate reality game show called House Arrest. I despise reality TV with a passion and have never understood people's fascination with such thinly-veiled voyeurism. But, I persevered and, at the end of the day, I actually enjoyed this book for what it was, and that what it's all fookin' about, inn't? Respect!
So what gives?
I suppose the reason enjoyed this book is that it was such an over-the-top parody of reality television and didn't attempt to squeeze some sort of moral or philosophical point out of what is, ultimately, an extremely hollow genre of entertainment. I mean, anyone who stops to consider the social and cultural implications of reality television is simply going to think themselves into a considerable headache and be nowhere closer to a solution than they were an hour previous. It's lowest-common-denominator television and anyone who argues otherwise is delusional or simply dim.
Had this book taken itself even a little seriously, it would have fallen flat on its face. Instead Elton carefully portrays each of the "housemates" as the cardboard cut-outs they are: The boozer, the struggling actor looking for a break, the quiet doctor who is trying to blend into the surroundings. the lesbian, the manipulative and money-grubbing producer, the bitter evictee, and the smelly hippie anarchist that endears himself to the public. Elton's characters have about as much depth as a puddle. There are no subtle personalities and no extended networks of friends or family (only those relevant to the plot). Each character is no more than the sum of their parts as they appear on television. Single-serving characters as Edward Norton might say.
When a murder is introduced to the plot (something that would obviously send a REAL reality show to a screeching, lawsuit-addled halt), the already absurd cast of characters is thrust into improbability hyperdrive that includes attempted suicide, and a kick-boxing Irish lass. I mean, what's not to like? Had they added a fifty-foot giant iguana that terrorized London I wouldn't have batted an eyelash.
Add the impossible circumstances in which the murder takes place (in an enclosed environment littered with cameras that document the happenings in literally every corner of the house) and give each and every "housemate" a motive for killing the victim (some very flimsy motives, I might add) and you've got yourself an enjoyable, if ultimately pointless read. The wonderfully pyrrhic conclusion is worth the price of admission alone. It was so unnecessarily convoluted that I had to read it twice and it still made my head hurt, but who cares? It's reality television literature which means it's like the junk food of fiction. I'll feel bad for a few hours after finishing the book and forget the entire thing by next week (unless of course I descend into a downward spiral of junk food books and choke on my own vomit).
For the one or two people who read this blog on a regular basis, you might ask: "Why give Dead Famous a pass and Henry's Sisters such a colossal fail?"
Well, my dear reader, it was all about delivery. While Cathy Lamb wrote with all the sincerity in her entire body and failed, failed, failed, you get the impression throughout Dead Famous that Ben Elton is simply taking the piss out of our modern culture (or lack of culture). As is mentioned before if at any point in this book had Elton waxed intellectual on the state of modern pop culture and the decline of Western civilization you would be reading a blog post akin to Henry's Sisters. As it stands, he didn't and the book is every bit as vacant as you would expect. It's the difference between Zoolander and It's Pat: The Movie. One is so stupid it becomes smart parody, the other is simply stupid. There is a fine line and one that is not easily explained. I would suspect that the people who cannot tell the difference between parody and stupid are also fans of reality television.
Anyway, I've wasted enough time on this book. Let me give a closing example to prove my point about stupid-turned-funny. At a crucial point in the book when the remaining non-murdered "housemates" are sitting around chatting about God, one of the characters spews this thought-provoking sound bite of wisdom:
"I'm quite interested in Eastern religions. For instance, I reckon that Dalai Lama is a fookin' ace bloke, because with him it's all about peace and serenity, ain't it? And at the end of the day, fair play to him because I really really respect that."
Take away the annoying Britishisms and you have a Hansel quote, right there. That's comedy gold, right there, Jerry!