Kevin Roose is a New York Magazine writer. His new book, Young Money, comes out next month.
With the Grammy Awards just two days away, the Academy Awards on the horizon and the results of the SAG and Golden Globe awards already in, we're smack in the middle of awards season.
I don't watch the Oscars. I don't even see many movies, unless you count what's on Netflix. But Jess Walter's very funny novel, Beautiful Ruins, made me want to quit my job, move to L.A. and see the Hollywood train wreck up close.
The book tells a decade-spanning story about Claire, a young assistant to a past-prime movie producer named Michael Deane. Deane — who's had so much plastic surgery that he now resembles, as Walter puts it, a "lacquered elf" — once worked on Cleopatra with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. But now he's in a slump, so Claire spends all day hearing pitches for reality shows like Drunk Midget House.
The book begins as a send-up. We Hollywood in all of its crass, commercial glory — washed up stars who refuse to get out of their silk pajamas and greedy studio executives. But the end, we realize the joke is on us. We're the audience clamoring for lowbrow reality shows, and Hollywood is just giving us what we want.
There's a love story in Beautiful Ruins, and it's a good one. But the sharpest parts of the book are the ones that explore the space that film and TV occupy in our world, and how even the most low-budget productions can be genuinely meaningful. Another character, Shane Wheeler, an aspiring screenwriter, makes the connection between film and religion. "Wasn't the theater our temple," he asks himself, "the one place we enter separately but emerge from two hours later together, with the same experience, same guided emotions, same moral? A million schools taught ten million curricula, a million churches featured ten thousand sects with a billion sermons — but the same movie showed in every mall in the country. And we all saw it!"
It's a convincing epiphany, and it makes me want to pay attention to what happens this awards season. If Jess Walter is right, there's something much more important going at the Oscars than starlets, red carpets and the glittering mess of Hollywood.