'Famous People' Splashes in the Puddle of a Shallow Pop Star
When our protagonist is calm and reflective in Justin Kuritzkes' Famous People, there's a sense of potential intelligence beneath the shiny surface.
Henry Holt and Co.
The prospect of spending a few hours reading a monologue from a 22-year-old pop star as he tells us all about the ambiguous pleasures of unfathomable celebrity success probably won't be immediately enticing for most readers. Famous People is not a long book, but our time is precious.
Some of us will never admit our visits to celebrity websites about a Kardashian, a celebrity housewife, or YouTube video star gone bad. We might click on videos and sometimes check out their Instagram accounts, understanding going in that this little deviation is the worst time-killer.
Still, our attraction to disposable pop stars is certainly nothing new. These legends of "the star-making machinery behind the popular song" have been with us long before Joni Mitchell in the 1970s and before Elvis in the 1950s. Trace the pop star back to Al Jolson in the 1920s and bring the story through the next nearly 100 years and you will find tools more focused on selling a product than making a visionary statement.
Indeed, the greatest pop stars of today are never without a battalion of sycophants, crisis management specialists, stylists, and countless producers, writers, arrangers, and lawyers ready to secure rights to their artists' beats. Today's pop stars have immediate, unlimited access to their fan base, and the consequences are usually terminal. Time in the spotlight is concentrated and intense, and even the savviest artists can sometimes fall apart.
The unnamed narrator of Justin Kuritzkes's Famous People is a thinly-veiled adaptation of Justin Bieber. This is the easiest and closest approximation most readers will make. He's 22-years-old, a teen idol since he was 12, from the moment a video of him singing went viral. His girlfriend Mandy seems to be his female counterpart. She's radicalized after experiencing a terrorist incident while performing in Europe (obvious parallels to the bombing at a 2017 Ariana Grande concert). This story does not closely hew to Bieber's life and times so much as give a smooth approximation of his tale. (In this book, our narrator's father commits suicide; Bieber's father remains alive yet estranged from his son.)
The closer similarities Kuritzkes provides are the seemingly countless tattoos on his protagonist and a relationship with Bob, a religious figure that parallels Bieber's Pastor Carl. The book's overall success depends on the reader's willingness to stay with this speaker. Where will he take us? Do we want to go? How much can we read conversations recalled as "I was like" and "He was like" without slamming the book's covers shut and throwing it across the room?
Some of the early press surrounding this book has compared it with Don DeLillo's brilliant 1973 novel, Great Jones Street. The premise is more or less the same, but the execution is widely different. In DeLillo's novel, Buck Wunderlick is escaping from fame, ruminating that his only fate as a superstar is to commit suicide. Neither novel features warm or endearing protagonists, but DeLillo's was much more intelligent. More knowing. Perhaps the relatively calm mood and sometimes isolated atmosphere of the pop world in the early 1970s made for a more compelling narrative. Kuritzkes has a tougher job in 2019 because he has to create a vapid character who hides what depth he has behind a defensive shield of ignorance. He has to create somebody whose ability to tell a story is only informed by text messaging or an immediate surrender to the normalcy of instant fame. He reflects on the legacy of the video that started it all:
"…it's actually hard for me to remember anything that happened in my life before I was famous…The life that I'm living now is still in some ways the same life that was birthed the day I uploaded that thing…the life before that feels like…[a] different movie."
Our narrator was born to a dental assistant mom and sound engineer dad. In another Bieber parallel, he grew up going to a church whose chorus sang traditional black music. Dad becomes his manager, songs are manufactured in the studio, and our narrator introduces us to Oddvar, his biggest fan:
"…First of all, he's thirty-six years old…lives in Norway...where, like, there's this giant seed vault where they're keeping spare copies of seeds for basically every type of plant on earth."
It's an interesting element to the story that runs through Famous People. Our narrator ruminates on loss, on the purpose of his music, and then we meet the charismatic Bob Winstock, also known as Pastor Bob, who becomes his stepfather. The relationship eventually sours, but at first it's compelling to our narrator. "Bob looked me in the eyes and said: 'When was the last time somebody really TALKED to you?... It's like Bob really sees you, creature to creature." Bob asks another question: " 'What do you really want to be saying with your music?'" Our protagonist answers: "The world, man. Humanity." It comes off as equal parts funny, melancholic, and authentic.
There is no traditional schooling for our narrator. He remains drawn to Bob, even his homophobic pronouncements. "I just wish people would greet things with curiosity and openness instead of always with judgement," he says, and he compares Bob with his father. The latter, he concludes, "…just couldn't admit the limits of his own understanding."
What works best in Famous People is the pacing. For a relatively brief novel, a lot is happening. Kuritzkes, best known for face-morph-filtered YouTube monologues like 2011's "Potion Seller" and 2016's album Songs about My Wife, has an assured tone in this debut as a novelist. His plays have been staged by the New Group, JACK, and Actor's Theatre of Louisville. His credentials are strong as a storyteller and it seems that common sense (his or his editor's) prevailed that this should be brief. About a quarter of the way through this story, our narrator starts telling us about a video game he's working on. He thinks about how his life can be different in the game:
"But on the headset, you know, in the game, I can actually make people laugh, and like, I can actually have a fun time with them…"
What works best as the video game is introduced is Kurtizkes' listing of options, choices, variables. Our narrator compares it with his life. There's an option where he can never post the video that made him famous and instead live a life with different choices. His parents, long estranged, live their own lives. His dad starts a blog, posts disturbing videos, and eventually takes his own life. Our narrator reflects: "…I guess that's the thing about suicide… it's never a particularly creative thing to do so much as it just shows a certain level of commitment… That's the best thing he's ever gonna do."
There are interesting paths Kuritzkes takes in this book that seem to be diversions but quickly prove otherwise. Our protagonist reflects on tattoos: "The only reason tattoos stay in our skin for so long is that our body thinks it's under attack." He reflects on the aesthetics, meaning, and staying power of his chosen tattoos. He is drawn to them because "…you forget about them sometimes." He weaves the story of his father's funeral into reflections of tattoos. He says his mother's life has "…been completely defined by men." It's in this section and others that the reader feels relieved Kuritzkes has not stuck his protagonist (and us) with endless "you know" and "like" and "dope". He is as deep as we can hope he'll be, and as he reflects on his mentor Bob and girlfriend Mandy, we can sense the struggle. Bob thinks Mandy is dumb, unworthy of his young charge:
"To Mandy, Bob was just this rich kid aristocrat who was born into a lot of money and had the privilege of spending all his time…going HMMM what do I think about this?"
The terrorist attack at Mandy's Berlin concert is evocative and frightening. Our protagonist's reflections on being a "tiny little seahorse in the middle of the ocean", however, are endearing. The commentary on his tattoos and their meaning, surfacing again in this section (perhaps the last third of the novel) can be a book unto itself. The commentary is balanced, effectively, with problems at the seed vault, conflict with Oddvar, and Mandy's transformation from shiny happy pop star to radical activist in the wake of the Berlin bombings. Our narrator's performing career explodes from drug overdoses and general excess (not his, but rather his inner circle.) She reflects on the promising talent of the Berlin bombers extinguished by their own making, but it's the legacy of his father's suicide that remains troubling. He works through it in his video fame.
"I know what would have happened if I found my dad before he killed himself…and so there's really no point in imagining the scenario."
The final moments between our protagonist and Oddvar are as expected, written here in several pages of "And I was like", "And Oddvar was like". It's an unbearable ping-pong game of 20-something speak from a kid with no real formal education, and the reader is almost relieved to have it come back into the narrative. Kuritzkes nicely handles the tone for his lead character here. When our protagonist is calm and reflective, there's a sense of potential intelligence beneath the surface. When he recalls tense moments, he reverts to less coherent speech as if he's ashamed of his intelligence. Mandy, enlightened and bitter and cynical, tells our narrator what he is:
"You are an advertisement for a fake world… They want to eat you. And of course, they do. They're starving. You're the cheap fuel that keeps the whole thing running."
Mandy's final words to our protagonist give us a sense that he might break free from the shackles of the pop star machine, someday. They're also a solid forecast that Kuritzkes's debut novel should mark the start of an interesting and important journey.