Books

'Deus Ex Machina': A Sensational Sacrifice to Banality

This is a fine, funny novel about the moral and spiritual costs of reality television competitions and their corporate counterparts.


Deus Ex Machina

Publisher: Counterpoint
Length: 205 pages
Author: Andrew Foster Altschul
Price: $14.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2011-02
Amazon

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.

Next Page
7

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

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

rating-image