‘Celebrity Chekhov’ Is as Much a Tribute as It Is an Invention

Somewhere, someplace, someone loves Nicole Ritchie and has never heard of Anton Chekhov.

Celebrity Chekhov: Stories by Anton Chekhov

Publisher: HarperPerennial
Length: 224 pages
Author: Ben Greenman
Price: $13.99
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2010-10

“What makes [Chekhov’s] stories,” Ben Greenman asks in the book’s introduction, “so compelling?”

A reinvention of some famous and some not so famous Chekhov stories, in Celebrity Chekhov, Greenman recasts the original characters with contemporary actors, politicians, socialites. I wondered if this book would be more in line with the hilarious satire he’s so well known for over at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, but surprisingly Celebrity Chekhov is (as Harper Perennial put it) “more than just a literary stunt,” and is “a surprisingly compassionate window into a set of lives that have traditionally been considered tabloid fodder at best.”

So what makes Chekhov so compelling? Greenman’s response: “Chekhov understood people particularly well, and specifically he understood their weaknesses.”

I haven’t owned a television in nearly a decade. I do, however, flip through trashy magazines while waiting in line at Duane Reade. This is to say that I am familiar with Paris Hilton, Michael Douglas, Simon Cowell, and even Gary Busey (who makes a sad and seemingly perfect fit in the story “Terror”). The lack of knowledge, or even interest, in these public figures is not why I worried about my ability to relate to this book. I worried about my deep connection to the Anton Chekhov; his stories, his plays; his unrelenting depiction of the human condition. Alas with sensitivity and compassion, Greenman, breathes a new life into these stories.

General Zakusin from “The Album” becomes Sarah Palin and in a hysterical moment, she allows her daughter, Piper, to make paper doll cutouts of the lieutenant governor and the adjunct general. In “At the Barber’s”, Billy Ray Cyrus, to the exasperation of the barber, admits having betrothed his daughter Miley to a sporting goods dealer. “Why I… why,” laments the barber, clippers on the table, Billy now half bald. “I cherished sentiments for her. It’s impossible. I am in love with her and have just recently sent her a letter offering my heart.”

That’s what the best of Greenman’s stories do: yearn. They bleed like only a Chekhovian character can.

This book is as much a tribute as it is an invention. Sure, a few of the stories fall short. In “Choristers” Randy Jackson and company fail to stand up to their Russian counterparts. Count Vladimir Ivanovitch is no match for Bono. Yet, in his defense, Greenman admits that “sometimes the [celebrity] fit is perfect. Sometimes it’s intentionally, surreally bad, and sometimes the pleasure is in the disorientation.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any pleasure in the disorientation of the American Idol tribe.

Or Eminem in “Hush” does very little in place of Ivan Yegoritch Krasnyhin, the struggling, overly wrought author in need of peace and quiet in order to create. Aside from our ability to pronounce Eminem’s name with ease, the story simply lacks in the humor I’ve grown to expect from Greenman.

Most of these stories, though, sing with Greenman’s caustic wit, and they dance with love and sadness: Nicole Kidman in “The Darling” loses Tom Cruise to an unfortunate and unknown death. She finds love again -- this time with Keith Urban, a lumberjack. When she loses him, too, who’s left? Brad Pitt’s son, of course.

This is when Greenman is at his best. His humor moves from morose to laugh out loud funny, to tears in your eyes as you read. He has complete control over timing. It moves to his pulse and the reader moves with it. Beat by beat.

The very best, the very, very best of these stories make us weep: Lindsay Lohan’s mother pleading with Jesse James to give her daughter a “good flogging” as she’s clearly let down the entire family; no new movie rolls, no longer in fashion, and a failed attempt at Shakespeare! Lohan is painted as the great failure, after all, from Gawker to Greenman.

Perhaps this was Greenman’s goal: to give the outer lives of these all too familiar celebrities some humane and internal qualities that the media can’t depict. Such as real sadness. Not the Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake who broke up a decade ago, but the Britney, years later in “A Lady’s Story”, who recognizes that her life has passed her by. “I was loved,” she says, “happiness was not far away, and seemed to be almost touching me…”

In “An Enigmatic Nature” Oprah says, “I yearned for something extraordinary, above the common lot of woman!” In “Bad Weather”, Tiger Woods’ lonely wife “waved her hands and burst into loud weeping, uttering, ‘Not at home! Not at home!’”

Much like Greenman’s previous collection, What He’s Poised To Do, the stories in Celebrity Chekhov take just a few minutes to read but stay with you long after. You’ll feel you need to return to them. They’ll pull you in that deep.

If they don’t, send me your copy of the book, I’ll put it in the mail and send it to a stranger as one reviewer did with Greeman’s previous book, because…why not?

Somewhere, someplace, someone loves Nicole Ritchie and has never heard of Anton Chekhov.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.