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.
The Command Center
Altschul also introduces, through sudden pronoun changes, flashes of a power outside the command center, and so one that subverts its command: “Our newest software records the producer’s search terms, runs them through statistical analyses, cross-references them with recent performance evaluations, Nielsen ratings, quarterly assessments written by his therapist. A report is being generated as we speak.” This has a ripple effect of allusion, from the network itself to its corporate interests, outward to the author and the reader. Yet Altschul’s judicious use of the device renders this omnipresence as something spooky, insidious and also oddly intimate, a kind of Ultimate Over-reality, where there is free will but only under the control of an overriding Intelligence.
This Intelligence insists on a guest appearance, I won’t say by whom, but I will say I was as mildly enthusiastic as The Deserted’s audience. In other words, Altshcul hooked me with the come-on before delivering on just the kind of mediocrity I should have expected. The guest dons the garb of a Volcano Priestess and pronounces a sermon that uncannily anticipates Charlie Sheen: “How do you help with winning yourself if you’re always so busy trying to reach lots of things they aren’t needing there […] Are you here to get the Nobel Prize for being nice, or for winning?” Though the sermon’s syntax is amusing, Altshcul’s satire falls a bit flat here. I understand the purpose of the guest’s lite-weight liturgy, but I wanted more punch.
Gradually the producer becomes the novel’s conscience, and I mean the conscience, as in the only one. For some reason inexplicable to himself, he begins pulling for the most nondescript, non-sensational contestant, a dental hygienist with the great Flannery O’Connor-like name Gloria Hamm:
“She’s nobody,” [his assistant] is saying. “She’s not attractive, she’s not funny, she barely talks. She hasn’t screwed anyone, no one hates her, no one complains about her. She’s wallpaper. I have more text-votes than she does.”
[…] “People don’t have to be useful.”
“They do on television!”
The producer is intrigued by what he perceives as Hamm’s Zen-like indifference, “the image of [her] face frozen there like a mandala.” She seems to possess the key to a long-missing mantra whose retrieval he is willing to jeopardize his career for. In a minor tour-de-force, Altschul describes the producer’s crossing over into The Deserted’s television realm, like Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “The air reeks of methane and rich animal odors that gather in the back of his throat. Fatigue crawls on his face like a cowl. His movements are slowed by floating vines like the thick tresses of some woodland witch, by submerged roots that trap his ankles; the squelching sound his legs make is gruesome, bodily.” The producer enters the cameras’ sightlines in violation not of any fourth wall, which no one really believes in anymore, but of his own strict guiding principle of No Intervention.
There is a horror of sorts, beyond the two-dimensional masochism of Gloria Hamm who, after not saying much of anything throughout the book or on the show, rouses or tele-rouses herself from her empty resignation to deliver just the kind of pornographic litany she knows the producer and the audience guiltily crave:
“Tell me what to do,” she says. “I’m a winner…I’m the real thing. You want to touch me? Do it. I’m a winner…You want to fuck me? Go for it big guy. Fuck me…Want me to jack you off? Want to come on my face? I’m a winner. Whatever it takes, right?”
Besides being a great pun—aren’t all television stars, reality, wannabe or otherwise, glorious hams?—the name Gloria Hamm, with its associations of the sacred and profane, spiritual and physical (“The producer holds her body tightly. It’s somehow miraculous, this body…”), articulates bluntly some of the producer’s and the novel’s questions: How to reach a sense of genuine gloriousness, artistic or otherwise, when you’re mired in the “meat and viscera” of sensational banality? And is there a way to direct such banal matter to more divine ends? Accordingly, Hamm becomes The Deserted’s dubious, de facto winner, which I can proudly say I saw coming all along, though what she wins I wouldn’t want.
Altschul ends the novel with a post-show recap that was a little too coy for my tastes, but then don’t we all want alternate endings? And here I run up against a final meta-dilemma: in critiquing Deus Ex Machina, I end up feeling like one of the The Deserted’s bloggers tweeting furiously against the contestants’ faults and deficiencies. The texture of the novel is such that as soon as I say I wanted more from a character, I realize that’s the point; there isn’t more. Or when I say Altschul veers a bit too far into farce, I realize that’s also the point. The meta never stops. What else can post-reality be but total farce, total artifice and affect? Gone are the artistic riches of good ol’fashioned sur-reality. There is only faux-reality—which, obviously, is no reality at all.
But can’t a void stared into provide answers and open psychic doors? The difference is that while something like yoga requires a clearing of the mind, Altschul’s televolution entails a self-canceling over-abundance, too much of nothing; a wash-out or -over like a psychic tsunami, with all the instant and residual devastation that implies.