In 'Deus,' A Glimpse Of The Reality TV-PocalypseIn an uncanny portrait of the television genre, the novel Deus Ex Machina stars a bitter reality TV producer who plays the role of deity, and added voice-overs and contrived slo-mo shots conveniently resolve disturbing events on a remote island.
How do you satirize something that's already a parody of itself? Take reality television, a genre that, even its fans have to admit, has become intensely absurd. 30 Rock writers Tina Fey and Matt Hubbard mocked the reality craze with a fake show called MILF Island ("25 super-hot moms, 50 eighth-grade boys, no rules"), which doesn't sound that implausible when you consider the existence of real shows like Bridalplasty, Hotter Than My Daughter and Date My Mom. And while we haven't yet reached the dystopian future imagined by author George Saunders, who envisioned a show called How My Child Died Violently, it's not that difficult to imagine a future where actual reality television programs begin to outpace their satirized counterparts.
Compared to reviled reality shows like The Swan and Temptation Island, programs like The Amazing Race and Survivor seem tame, almost quaint. But as Andrew Foster Altschul observes in his brilliant new novel Deus Ex Machina, there's not much reality in reality television, and even good intentions can be corrupted to a horrifying degree when money and ratings are involved.
Deus Ex Machina follows one season in the life of The Deserted, a Survivor-esque reality show filmed on an apparently abandoned island. It's told from the perspective of an unnamed producer, still depressed about a recent personal tragedy, and disillusioned and bitter about what the show has become: "What did they have here, except for obsessive fan clubs, a bestselling line of Season Ten action figures, and four hundred and eighty-five thousand Facebook friends?"
The producer watches as the show's carefully selected cast — including Walter, an ex-Marine; Shaneequio, a counselor; and Richard, a hairdresser — competes in a series of dangerous games, in the process sustaining serious physical and psychological injuries. He's particularly obsessed with Gloria, a New York dental hygienist who doesn't say much and seems reluctant to even play the game.
Author Andrew Foster Altschul lives in San Francisco. His short stories have appeared in McSweeney's, Ploughshares and the 2007 anthology of O. Henry Prize Stories.
Of course the show is manipulated — there's little real about it except for the danger, resentment and pain. After a contestant is injured by a possibly accidental crossbow shot, the producer admits, "By the end of the week it will have been resequenced ... They'll add an incriminating flashback, stolen shots in slo-mo, until they've created the story they want to tell — and to hell with what really happened."
But it's hard to fake reality, and conditions on the island only deteriorate, culminating in two of the most shocking scenes in recent American fiction. In many ways, Deus Ex Machina is a horror novel, and one much more real, present and frightening than anything about vampires or werewolves.
A former rock journalist and the author of the critically acclaimed rock novel Lady Lazarus, Altschul is a remarkably perceptive and sometimes deeply funny observer of popular culture. But what makes Deus Ex Machina one of the best novels about American culture in years is Altschul's perfect understanding of the syntax and structure of reality TV.
It's darkly funny in parts, but mostly it's terrifying in its urgency and plausibility, and it's impossible to look at television the same way after you've read it. You're forced to wonder whether reality TV — whether our country itself — could ever become the nightmare it is in Altschul's stunning, sad novel: 300 million people, four major networks, no rules.
Excerpt: 'Deus Ex Machina'
Andrew Foster Altschul
Deus Ex Machina By Andrew Foster Altschul Paperback, 192 pages Counterpoint List price: $14.95
In the beginning there was the Idea, a passionate if inchoate sense of purpose with which the producer and Armand, his mentor, descended from Armand's rooftop bar, ready to do battle with the network. They were armed only with a process message that, looking back, was audaciously vague: Viewers will see what it is like to be other people. They will learn the truth of the human heart and mind.
From idea to pitch, then a string of meetings in which the suits were frankly uncomprehending but intrigued. Free will: a concept of such beautiful simplicity no one quite knew how to discuss it. You chose the environment, dropped the unsuspecting players into it, and left them alone. No host, no gags, no idiotic games. And no intervention. It would be unpredictable, risky — "That's what makes it real," Armand said. He had the bad taste to bring up Godard, which almost sank the meeting. But when they pointed out how much they'd save in casting, the suits raised their eyebrows and leaned back in their chairs.
"We're thinking of calling it Abandoned! With an exclamation mark," the producer said. The suits frowned. "We're not married to it," he said.
Six months later they were in the Everglades, sweating their asses off, watching ten exhausted strangers learn to hate each other. This was the Season One season of The Deserted. A year later there were licensed clones of the show in eight countries.
But after twelve seasons their revolution is in trouble, their innovations passé. Once upon a time people had wanted an unfiltered window into the lives of their fellow man and woman, a mirror held up to the world. Sure, that mirror had to be adjusted, the window tinted, a nudge here, an edit there, to reel the story in—reality, after all, is infinite and ever changing; television, on the other hand, is all too finite. You needed to schedule your spots with some degree of accuracy. But the idea! The idea had been sound.
Now the market is flooded with crude gimmicks, ever more extravagant rewards. The mirror is warped beyond recognition. In its spare simplicity the idea has come to seem priggish—how can the producer compete with shows about extreme sex reassignment, public-transit sabotage, hunger strike competitions? Before such spectacle, such degradation, the producer feels helpless, a dinosaur. Even the blogs have turned against him. They'd gotten the green light for this new season, but everyone can sense a reckoning coming, a new paradigm taking shape: postreality, though no one can yet say what that means.
On a remote island off Indonesia, ten players have been stranded—no money, no maps, and no clue. The producer watches from the network's production facility, a mile from their campsite.
"Listen up, people!" says Bernatelli, an ex-Marine and the group's self-declared leader. He tears a strip of denim from a pair of jeans, ties it around his head. "I know you're tired. I know it's been a tough day. But let me tell you something –"
The producer closes his eyes. "When the going gets tough…" he says.
"When the going gets tough…" Bernatelli says.
With each passing season he grows less convinced of the Deserted's reality, their basic humanity. They're cardboard cutouts, the personas they develop ever more elaborate and yet more predictable. Miley, one of his assistant producers, calls it "televolution," the way their personalities hew ever closer to those of previous seasons, other shows, their triumphs, failures, love affairs, betrayals converging like images in an elevator mirror. And they're happy to do it. No humiliation or discomfort is too much. The sex-changers, the mothers who beat their children on camera, the couples who document their divorces. The husbands who screw their secretaries, the wives who screw their trainers, the secretaries who screw their bosses' wives. Hookers turned kindergarten teachers, housewives turned hookers, drug dealers turned Christian marriage counselors. Whole families cooking up publicity stunts in their garages.
"It's like they're writing it for us," the producer tells Armand, over the phone. After last season Armand was forced into retirement, replaced by a 20-something MBA from Finance; now he lives in San Miguel de Allende. "Who taught them to do that?"
"You did," says Armand. "We both did."
They're quiet a moment, strains of mariachi music coming through the phone. They still serenade in San Miguel, Armand says. The men still stand below their beloved's window and pour out their souls, despite the millions who've done it before.
"It was supposed to be unpredictable," the producer says. "Remember? About how different people are. About empathy. It's depressing."
On his monitor, the faces of the Deserted are fading in the dusk. From the interior comes the lonesome howl of a coyote. "You hear the one about the little kid, the queer, and the priest in a rowboat?" says the ex-Marine. The others players groan. The sky has cleared to a sad, nacreous indigo, spattered with brilliant stars, constellations never before observed by man or woman—created specially, and at great expense, with algorithms developed in Cupertino.
"Look up," the producer says. But no one looks up.
If they already know what's expected of them, why pay consultants to build the perfect cast? You could scoop ten people off the street and soon they'd be forming cabals, plotting revenge, making threats, performing fellatio, sobbing on cue. You didn't have to create the Deserted: just give people a chance to express the Deserted they already wanted to be.
Then there's Gloria. A dental hygienist from Long Island, Gloria has stayed out of trouble since the season began. She's ignored the other players' provocations, passed up countless opportunities to get into a shot. She's nondescript, a dud—just the kind of thing the show can't afford.
"Better shape up, kid," he says, watching her pick something out of her teeth. What role is Gloria playing? Who has she decided to be?
The producer has no idea.
"Look up, dumbasses."
In the gloom of the fading campfire, Gloria lets out a sigh and turns away from the others. While the producer holds his breath, she leans back in the sand and lifts her face to the lovely, perilous sky.