Review: 'Fan Fiction,' by Brent SpinerFan Fiction is part memoir, part noir pastiche and maybe a little bit true. Is it a great work? No. Is it a lot of fun? Yes. Is it a book that could only have been written by Brent Spiner? Absolutely.
Fan Fiction begins with a pig penis. It ends with a killing. And in between it touches on murder, obsession, Frank Sinatra, quaaludes, Hollywood, series television, fandom and the early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
It isn't great literature, but it is weird (which counts for a lot) and fun (which also counts for a lot), might be an elaborate prank being played by the author, and it is absolutely a book that could've only been written by Brent Spiner — Lt. Commander Data of TNG fame, working here on the page for the very first time (with help from co-author/ghostwriter Jeanne Darst).
Fan Fiction is Spiner's debut book — a novel that's also part memoir, part noir pastiche, an insider(ish) look behind the scenes at Star Trek and the life of a working actor, completely made-up and also maybe a little bit true. It is an odd thing, taken all together, and the voice wavers more than a little as it tries to maintain its pulpy noir aesthetic amid the several challenges presented by its setting (1990 Los Angeles), narrator (the victim, rather than some tough-as-nails private dick) and its author (Spiner's taste for weird physical comedy and overblown caricature make the whole thing borderline surreal). And it begins with the condensed story of a 22-year-old leaving his home in Texas for the very first time and moving to New York City with dreams of becoming a star.
This is Brent Spiner the author talking about Brent Spiner the actor, chronicling years of struggle, rejection, minor successes (that felt like anything but) and one big success. It lasts about 10 pages. That's the pure memoir part. The story of a skinny Jewish kid from Houston making it big in Hollywood by playing an android trying to understand what it is to be human.
The rest of the book is Brent Spiner the Author telling a shaggy-dog yarn about Brent Spiner, an actor to whom he bears a striking (but not complete) resemblance, whose life is like a parallel-dimension version of his own — one where actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company (like Patrick Stewart, who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard on TNG) are all trained in martial arts and everything in L.A. is just a 10-minute drive from everything else.
One day, in among his buckets of fan mail (the size and contents of which Spiner obsesses over guiltily throughout), the studio mailman delivers to Data's trailer a box containing a severed pig's wang, along with a bloodstained letter from a fan who calls him "Daddy," threatens to kill him soon, and signs it as the TNG character Lal — an android daughter created by (and, ultimately, deactivated by) Data in an earlier season.
"Lal" is a dangerous kook, bent on murdering Brent Spiner. Her letters keep coming — growing more personal and more threatening. And strange things keep happening. There's another obsessed fan who imagines having long (and dirty) conversations with Spiner over the phone while her husband is away, a police detective with the title "Head of Obsessives" who leads a squad that deals solely with Hollywood stalkers (and is, of course, a wannabe screenwriter himself). There's a traffic cop who pulls Brent over while he's high on 'ludes given to him by his facialist-slash-therapist, but then lets him off in trade for an autograph. LeVar Burton makes an appearance as a patchouli-smelling transcendentalist. A beautiful FBI agent gets put on the case and her twin sister is assigned as Brent's bodyguard — and he falls in love with both of them. And then there's his kidney stones...
Look, it's a lot, okay? And the whole thing is threaded through with dream sequences in which Spiner deals with his feelings about his abusive step-father and his own inadequacies, thoughts on fandom and funerals, the meaning of make-believe, and many scenes spent wandering around in his underwear. So if you're into that kind of thing, you know, jackpot.
It is a strange book, done completely straight-faced, doused liberally with sad-sack, self-deprecation from the author about ... himself. Or his made-up self. Or both. A more skilled writer would've given the whole thing depth, meaning, weight. A less accomplished storyteller would've made himself come off like less of a schlub. And either would've ruined Fan Fiction's madcap energy, its Bizarro-World charm. As it is, the writing varies wildly between manic and terse, the ending is sudden, bizarre, completely nonsensical and absolutely predictable all at the same time, and the characterizations of women throughout are unfortunate in that they're largely appearance-based — though that's a tough thing to gauge in a book where every character is a caricature and the tone is trying so hard (with occasional success) to read like the kind of sunshine noir that would absolutely have hard-nosed dames with legs up to there, or whatever.
And while there were moments while reading that I felt sure this was all some elaborate gag by Spiner, ultimately, I think it is exactly what I said it was earlier — a yarn. The kind of story he's told a hundred times before, to friends and fans, changing names and places, embellishing and inventing as he goes. It's a barroom epic, a party piece for dull cocktail hours, a story told without ego or shame just for the pure, weird joy of the telling.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Star Blazers. He's the restaurant critic at Philadelphiamagazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.