Sunday, March 08, 2009

Locust Day

I've watched very few reality shows. Most of them are so clearly fraudulent they're little different from fiction. But occasionally on the tube you see something that's straight from Nathaniel West's Day of The Locust, the nexus of tragedy and an an unthinkable need for some kind of spurious fame. Or at the very least recognition.

In the Guardian today Gordon Burn discusses at some length what reality TV has wrought. He begins with Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking work of Staggering Genius, a books that includes what Eggers "purports" is his audition tape for the MYV show The Real World."

"In the course of the tape, Eggers discusses the deaths of both of his parents from cancer in the space of a month, the deaths by suicide and suspected suicide he remembers as a child growing up in a well-heeled suburb of Chicago, his masturbation habits, favourite films and TV shows, the smell of his mother on her deathbed, his young brother, Toph, whom he is bringing up alone, formative sexual experiences, and his father's clandestine and ruinous alcoholism.

"Have I given you enough?" Eggers interrupts himself at one point to inquire of the producer who is putting him through his paces. "Put me on television," he urges her. "Let me share this with millions. I will do it slowly, subtly, tastefully. Everyone must know. I deserve this. I have this coming. Am I on? Have I broken your heart? Was my story sad enough?" And then, unsettlingly for anybody who in past weeks has been following the twists and turns of the Jade Goody story, he adds: "I can do last breaths, last words. I have so many things. There is so much symbolism."

The Goody reference is to a news story that has was much bigger abroad than here. Goody was a lower class woman it was difficult to like. She played The Bad Girl of reality TV with ease. Then things changed.

Gordon Burn:

"It was while she was appearing on the Indian version of Big Brother, known there as Big Boss, that Goody first heard that she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. It was a private moment which of course - a contract had been signed, and there were the new invented traditions of the reality genre to observe - was broadcast live and flagged up instantly as breaking news, something to be excitedly chewed over by the blogosphere's gawkers as well as by mainstream news organisations, themselves insatiably solicitous of audience input and feedback, back home in Britain.

"Goody was called to the diary room and effectively given a death sentence by a doctor many thousands of miles away in London, while her fellow housemates, quarantined on the other side of a sheet of plateglass, were left to speculate about what infringement of which rule - the one pertaining to the wearing of fright-wigs and maids' uniforms? The one about forbidden access to the hair-straightener? - had given rise to her heaving shoulders and hot tears."

Awhile back Salon ran an article about all the things science fiction failed to predict. To me reality TV is one of them. When sf writers wrote about the dominance of TV in future societies it was usually how the tube was used to spy on us or indoctrinate us en masse or have humans die in bloody games ala Roman gladiators ( or in the case of Mack Reynolds) to accompany us on our wars, which came true to an extent in Iraq.)

Not even Philip Dick managed to think of the most subtle and treacherous use of TV, that of the confessional with the prime motivation being humiliation and degradation for the pleasure of the viewers.

But then a different kind of writer many decades earlier had dealt with the same kind of fame-obsessed society we have today. His name was Nathaniel West.

for the rest of the excellent Burn article go here:


Anonymous said...

Actually, one very good SF novel not only predicted reality television, it predicted the Goody situation almost exactly. D. G. Compton's "The Unsleeping Eye", features a reporter who has an camera implanted in his eye so that he can cover the last days of a dying woman. The book was filmed by Bertrand Tavernier as "Death Watch".

Bill Carlin said...

The great Nigel Kneale nailed reality TV on the head with a TV play produced by the BBC in the 60s. He was also responsible for the Quatermass TV series / films.
It was called "The Year of the Sex Olympics". Being only 13 at the time (1968) I was banned from seeing its first run.