It seems at one time or another we’ve all had the feeling that we were acting a part in a film or television show, reciting some script reflecting fragments from the numerous scenes that have lodged in our consciousness over the years. Though earlier people may have felt themselves as characters in books or plays, and acted accordingly, it’s obvious that the invention of films and especially television accelerated humanity’s tendency to ape what it sees.
This developed television-consciousness, what a character in Andrew Foster Altschul’s fine and funny novel Deus Ex Machina calls “televolution”, has reached a curious and critical point in the age of reality television. If the most marked aspect of this behavior is the half-conscious, or even conscious, taking on of clichéd roles picked up from popular media culture, then the roles played by theoretically real people in supposedly real situations while being viewed by real people desiring similar role-play, reflect a virtual multiple personality disorder with disturbingly literal ramifications.
Deus Ex Machina explores just some of the moral sacrifices made through or to this process of televolution. The novel is a behind the scenes story of an extreme Survivor-like reality show called The Deserted, in which contestants are plane-crashed into remote areas and left to fend for themselves—though in reality, of course, with highly strategic surveillance and manipulation by a nearby television crew. Rather than chapters, the novel is broken up into the weeks of a television season, which sounds more gimmicky than it comes off. Altschul gives the book the kind of see-saw suspense of so much reality television, then undercuts it with some deadly poetic satire: “…the first stars emerge between tattered clouds, constellations never before observed by man or woman, created specially, and at great expense, with algorithms developed in Cuperinto.”
The novel’s protagonist, simply called “the producer”, is a television veteran who counts his life in seasons rather than years. Initially the character seems a bit like Christof from the film The Truman Show, only much more deeply drawn, someone the novel itself might term a televisionary:
“The command center, with its virtual tentacles that sprawl across the island, across oceans, is the producer’s instrument, he’s often thought—each cut, each unexpected camera angle is a musical scale, each storybeat contributing to the long arc of the season like notes in an arpeggio. For twelve seasons he’s played this instrument like a virtuoso, the show his multimedia magnum opus, a symphony dedicated to the very idea of ‘reality.’”
Part of the novel’s kick and joke is the producer’s complex relation to the other, real reality. Despite his yogic meditations in a rain-misted trailer, the producer is in personal and professional crisis mode: a failed marriage full of miscarriages, his ex-wife’s death, a political tragedy at one season’s location, and now his mega-hit show in danger of being mutinied by an off-location young executive named Boby (pronounced, I assume, Bobby), who wants more intervention and less free will.
[The producer:] “It’s just so predictable now. Every word, every scheme. Whatever happened to free will?”
“Free will wreaks havoc with underwriting, as you well know.”
There is much of the kind of thing that Paddy Chayefsky perfected in Network: “On the live cam, the Deserted are getting ready for sleep. Tomorrow they’ll leave the beach for good, driven into the woods by the latest advances in remote climate management.” Or: “But it’s Simon, the poet, who’s in real trouble—sleeping 3.3 hours a night, food intake almost nonexistent, his wound visibly festering. His agent has been notified of the situation. She has insisted he stay on the show.”
This is not so much a retread of Chayefsky’s material as a reapplication of its spot-on satirical perceptions and prophecies. While at the time of Network such a thing as “reality TV” was in its pre-nascent stages—think of the excitement of Faye Dunaway’s character as she imagines the explosive possibilities!—Altschul’s world is already infested with such shows, his producer a bored veteran of this reality.
“Maybe Boby’s right,” [the producer] said then. “Maybe reality is a younger man’s game.”
“People like to find themselves on television. That’s all they really want. Don’t get philosophical.”
But how do you not get philosophical about reality?
While Altschul interweaves the two realities of contestants and crew, he also strikes the infra-thin wall between them. The command center, like the show’s competitive jungle arena, is combined war room, workplace and TMZ-like high school detention. To amuse themselves the bored television crew shout-out a language composed of pranks, insults and, most of all, sexual jibes traded not only amongst themselves but especially as continual commentary on the contestants their job it is to monitor:
“Belly ring on the blond, monitor five!” cries a logger.
“Holy shit, I think the math teacher’s a double-D!” says another.
[…] “Touch her!” says the chryon master. “Grab her ass!” says a logger.