on 6 August 2017
Jimmy Conway is a thirty-something TEFL teacher in a nondescript south coast town [in reality, Seaford is a charming seaside resort] who craves fame and ever since his teens has dreamt of becoming a comedy writer. When young he typed a series of letters to his future self, which he now reads back, perhaps for inspiration, though they seem to have a depressing effect on him. Like many aspiring writers, he has a script that he is working on when not at the day job. Through a series of accidents, misunderstandings and coincidences, Conway becomes famous, though his success turns out to be not on the terms he had expected or would want.
Conway is a sympathetic Everyman, very self-deprecating, very English, with a strong moral compass at his core. He is single, but not a loner and his friends and family feature quite prominently in the story. An interesting character is Tamsin, Conway's step-daughter, who I think is intended to represent a more childish version of Conway's own yearnings, in which regard the author deploys a clever metaphor for her attention-seeking tendencies. Everybody in this novel is middle class. Conway's concerns, frustrations and aspirations are quintessentially middle-class. He normally holidays in France with his friends. His parents holiday at the Eden Project and in the Dordogne and are silently disappointed in their youngest son while effusing praise on his older brother. Conway is the epitome of the 'middle-class failure' that is a staple of contemporary English literature: a frustrated, angst-ridden man in a relatively lowly occupation who has not met his own ambitions or others' expectations of him. TEFL teaching, especially abroad, is just the line of work that this type go in for. His psychic world revolves around the anguish of his situation and other superficial matters such as money, recognition, status, material goods, marque of car driven, holiday destinations and romantic relationships. What I found specially interesting about this character is his evident introversion and introspection, which the author seems to want to make a point of as it goes way beyond what I would normally expect in a monologue, represented by the letters he has written to himself, which he still reads as a mature man. Are professional comics normally introverted and inclined to introspection? I don't know, but I imagine they are as they need to be able to spend a lot of time alone, thinking about what is going on around them and looking at the world and human behaviour objectively 'from the outside in', and most good comedy can't be 'written by committee'. Do such attributes help to make a comedian or comic writer funny, or at least help with inspiration?
The story is written entirely in the first person, in Conway's voice, and at first I struggled with it, but it picked up and I am glad I persisted. This is a novel about talent, celebrity and fame: how and why some people have talent in a given area (the nature versus nurture debate), the reasons for the celebrity phenomenon, why people decide they want to be famous, and the personal consequences of fame and celebrity. The novel is a highly-appropriate medium for any discussion of these issues, as the cult of celebrity arguably began with literature: specifically, the Great Men hagiographies of the early 19th. century. Fame, celebrity and fortune are obviously not the same things. Celebrity is a type of fame, and while all celebrities are (by definition) famous (or infamous), not all famous people are celebrities. Mere fame implies possession of some skill or talent and that the famous person is largely reliant on sustaining success in a given field in order to maintain his or her fame, whereas the term 'celebrity' has more mutable connotations. Depending on the context, it may imply 'super-fame', i.e. a level of talent that makes the famous person a household name, even among people who have little or no interest in the relevant field or vocation, with the consequence that the celebrity has even transcended his own fame and now trades off his name or image; or celebrity may imply the opposite: the possession of little or no talent or skill, simply fame on its own account. The subject of celebrity can be known, pseudonymous or even anonymous, whereas the merely famous are almost-always known. Both mere fame and celebrity may entail randomness and an element of luck or chance for the successful person in becoming famous. Neither automatically implies hard work or even any special merit, though these elements are more likely in somebody who is famous but not a celebrity.
Another important theme addressed by O'Farrell is reality TV, which also features prominently in the story. The two things seem to link together somewhat because there is no attempt by the gatekeepers of fame and celebrity to actually test Conway's talent. What seems to matter is more whether Conway looks the part and says the right things. Ironically, Conway's initial fame is not entirely voluntary, he is sort of pushed into it by an assertive TV journalist and he doesn't seem to be completely in control of what is happening to him. One thing leads to another and he ends up on live TV performing at a memorial variety show, his slot to be broadcast to the nation. Conway is not an assertive man at all, he passively becomes famous, practically at random and by dint of chance, and when it happens he decides he does not like it. On the other hand, he shows a shrewd understanding of how to maintain his fame, including what to say (he imitates lines he has heard and read from others in the entertainment industry) and he has a clever Unique Selling Point, which is that he refuses to perform on television as it goes against his principles. He assumes that he lacks talent and will eventually be found out, which is a reasonable enough prediction, however it develops that he is quite talented at the thing that he is supposed to be famous for, so the concern is rendered moot.
In his diurnal confessionals to the reader, Conway self-consciously protests that he is a fake and a fraud - almost as if the denial of his own celebrity is a way for him to cling on to his true self - but I would beg to differ. He is no more a fake than most of the other people who appear on TV and are famous for some specific skill. Take the BBC programme, Have I Got News For You. It is not made clear that the programme is scripted and rehearsed, but the punchlines are not ad-libbed. In fact, everything is carefully prepared beforehand and the panellists are mostly just reading lines. Probably the same is true of the well-known TV programme this novel is named for, and this is common - even in reality TV. There are also lots of celebrities who are essentially only famous for being celebrities: an example being the younger members of the Khardasian family in the United States, and in Britain, the stars of the TV series The Only Way Is Essex. These are nothing more than performers without any discernible talent other than looking the part, but that point could even be extended to vocations where some training and skill is expected: business, the legal profession, even technical fields in science and engineering. A lot of people are professionally credentialed but have no substantial skills beyond 'looking the part': they are essentially actors, and in some cases, chancers, if not outright charlatans - but not necessarily bogus. I don't regard Conway as bogus either, whatever else he may be.
The author premises this story on the notion that celebrity and the press and media are cynical, hypocritical, mendacious, scrofulous, fake, and at times dishonest, and that celebrities, journalists, broadcasters, actors and others in the entertainment and information industries often live in a bubble and present to their audiences and the wider public a fictitious reality. I would agree: everything is rigged, corrupt and fake. Here's one of O'Farrell's characters (a Scouser) giving his opinions on award nights in the entertainment industry:
[quote]"As I toyed with my cold starter I attempted a conversation with the man on my other side, a slightly drunk Scouser who had an uncomplicated analysis of the evening's proceedings, though it was one he expressed quite emphatically: "These awards are a load of bollocks. It's all bollocks all of it. These people: bollocks; this whole industry: complete bollocks; these prizes: meaningless bollocks; this food: pure bollocks."[unquote] [p. 179].
That said, the press, media and entertainment industry are not necessarily more fake than many other walks of life where saying the right things and looking the part often go a long way. Right or wrong, that is the way of the world, and I think the author is perhaps being a little pious and even somewhat naïve to think it should be otherwise. It can't be. The dichotomy suggested between, on the one hand, advancement and success on merit, and on the other hand, success as a result of unmeritorious and meretricious factors does not, I think, reflect reality (which is not to suggest I think this novel is autobiographicalistic, though it could be). It has to be a combination of both, and in this story, Jimmy Conway indeed demonstrates both: he doesn't deserve his initial fame, he lies and tricks his way into an opportunity, but then he is able to demonstrate he has what it takes. That is what real people do (to some degree or other, depending on circumstances). Is Conway meant to feel guilt at this? Perhaps, but he is no more 'guilty' than most of the celebrities and performers he mixes with. Lots of famous people have lied about or distorted their personal backgrounds and early careers. They do so in order to pursue the field they love and are most good at. Is that such a bad thing? It's commonplace enough to almost be taken for granted that an unauthorised celebrity biography will reveal uncomfortable or embarrassing facts about its subject. In this novel, Conway is just taking things to their logical (if extreme) conclusion.
Another way to approach this would be to point out that fame and celebrity are held up as attractive situations that everybody should aspire to attain and the pressures and ordinary social influences that exist in society reflect this. The pursuit of fame and celebrity often provide a misguided direction to people's lives in cases where happiness could be more easily and productively achieved pursuing other ends. This social phenomenon must be relatively new in the history of civilisation: before mass media, who wanted to be famous, could be or needed to be? However, prestige has perhaps always existed within human groups, and is independent of more mundane human tendencies such as dominance and subservience and the formation of hierarchies. From an evolutionary perspective, it made sense to recognise and reward those with superior skills in a given area and then for others to imitate those people. The imitation might however be of the general behaviour of the talented individual, not just the specific techniques exhibited in a skill area, the talented individual having a magnetised or charismatic effect on others, with the result that maladaptive behaviours might have been adopted by the rest of the group in addition to those behaviours that aided survival.
Fans and members of the public warm to Conway when they know he is famous and laugh at his jokes, and even non-jokes, simply because they think they are expected to. Maybe this suggests that 'laughter' isn't always a response to something funny but more of a way for people to commune socially by sharing a reaction, such as excitement or playfulness? In real-life, television companies even provide canned laughter for comedy and panel shows in the expectation that viewers will slavishly laugh at or along with (or at least, approve of) the rubbish being broadcast, so comedy could be seen as a mechanism for social control through the fine-honing of mass responses to cultural stimuli. Advertising agencies, journalists, media people and fellow performers fawn around Conway, affect to know him, and pretend they have seen his act. Again, probably true-to-life, people wanting to be associated with whoever is Flavour-of-the-Mouth or perceived as the Next New Thing. Conway is invited to a serious discussion programme to give his view on North Sea cod depletion, even though he has no expertise in the relevant area. In real-life, the BBC often fields comedians and similar celebrities on its flagship Question Time programme and other topical programmes. Conway suddenly finds that women are attracted to him, which again rings true. Conway's behaviour in this story is, at times, presented as dysfunctional and often he acts against his own better judgement in pursuit of what he wants, emulating what society hypocritically demands of him, which is the ruthless pursuit of a goal in some kind of soft Darwinian struggle for overcoming and success; nevertheless when he achieves his goal he has the integrity, courage and intelligence to see through the pretences around him. My issue is with the decision that the author has him make at that point.
Conway does not just become a celebrity, he becomes somebody who is - quite literally - worshipped as a kind of pagan deity in the polytheism of postmodern capitalist celebrity culture. This is prestige turned on its head. It is also power. In the past, entertainers were the tribal 'fools' who spoke inconvenient truths about rulers. Their role was not to rule, but to catalyse change by mouthing the uncomfortable verities that intelligent men dared not articulate and that wise men wanted to conceal or deny knowledge about. It was presumably not intended that fools would become a ruling intellectual caste in their own right, an inversion of the social order, but this is the distorting effect that money-power has had on society: "...Someone said that celebrity was the new royalty..." [p. 220]. O'Farrell himself is part of this New Fools Caste who must live up to and play out their "...role of exaggerated importance that has been allocated to [them]." [p. 221]. He writes both comedy and satire, and he also writes both fiction and non-fiction. I think he is mainly a writer, but he has appeared on panel shows, and used to be seen quite a lot on the TV. He aligns himself with the mainstream, middle-of-the-road tendency in the Labour Party, and all his work has a relatively inoffensive, centre-left political slant. Maybe, given O'Farrell's politics and his involvement in the Labour Party, there is a subtle message here about Tony Blair: a politician who many took to be an actor, somebody not of substance. Politics is certainly a field where it is tacitly acknowledged that practitioners are expected to 'act', and like comedians, almost be group and mass psychologists in that they must know how to manipulate an audience and must possess other technical skills in relation to performance (similar to those that actors and comedians and similar performers learn). That said, the level of subject-specific knowledge and intellect required of a politician is often underestimated; while a politician may not have to be a technical expert in healthcare, for instance, he should be an expert in the politics (and economics) of healthcare. Nevertheless, it is true that politicians are always actors and always have been, at least since mass enfranchisement began in the early 19th. century.
I don't share O'Farrell's politics, but I have always regarded him as an example of that rare exception: a genuinely funny left-wing 'comedy personality' who isn't smutty (which probably explains why we hear so little about him). I do find his satirical writing annoying at times - it leans towards the usual bogus preconceptions that you find among metropolitan middle-class left-liberals - but that's a 'political' thing and I can't let that get in the way of an honest evaluation of his abilities as a writer. I had low expectations of this book, and that being the case, I am glad to say I have had a pleasant surprise. This is funny in places, which I expected. Actually it's funnier than I expected: I laughed out loud at one scene, which is a sufficient endorsement for anybody to read it. But this novel is also well-written, interesting and engaging, which I didn't expect at all. It's an impressive achievement, because it's genuinely difficult to make the novel form work for comedy, but O'Farrell pulls it off. I think I will be reading more of O'Farrell's books. This is not a challenging read, but in this case that's a good thing, and any British person who picks this up should enjoy it (readers elsewhere might not, as the style of humour and the cultural reference points are very British).
What lets this novel down is the ending, in which the false dichotomy and fake ethical dilemma set up by the author reach their logical conclusion. I think O'Farrell wears his social and political views too heavily. Sometimes that works, but here I think it starts to become a bit creaky and leads him down a path that stunts the plot, leaving the story lacking that 'Je ne sais quoi'. He is right in his central critique that people in society today are worshipping false deities - in this case, fame and recognition - but he goes too far in his presumed imperatives concerning the human condition. The author wants to tell us that ordinary non-famous people can have just as interesting and rewarding lives as the famous. This is true, but it is not a reason to dismiss the potential for a life of success and attainment in the public eye, with all the rewards and recognition that go with it. The author suggests that fame and celebrity are not as important as friends and genuine relationships, which again is true, but the assumption is that friends and relationships come to an end with fame and celebrity, which needn't be true. The author is telling us through this novel that we need to be ourselves. This is good advice, but fame needn't stop us from being ourselves. O'Farrell could have shown (and would be well-placed to show) how fame and celebrity might build character and what are the problems and challenges involved in this. Instead he tries to resolve things with a virtuous epistle that some readers will like, but which I found rather hackneyed and banal. G. K. Chesterton, in his famous essay, 'The Fallacy of Success', was closer to the point. Modern people worship money, its acquisition and accumulation and the things it can buy. That is the pagan god now. Real people aren't virtuous like in a fairy story and they don't become virtuous by dint of a simple attitude adjustment. In real life, there is courage and even, sometimes, virtù, often in pursuit of misguided or outright wrongful ends, but rarely is there virtue of the idealised kind that O'Farrell novelises here. That's what makes real people and their lives painful, messy and intriguing, and in the context of fiction, readable. I think the story arc could have been more interesting and the descant should have been more subtle and buried, and I can't give this the full five stars for that reason. I know this is harsh of me (and perhaps petty), but a 'quite good' novel could have been a 'very good' novel - perhaps even an updated answer to the Grossmiths' comedy classic, The Diary of a Nobody - if the author had only crafted a better ending instead of indulging in simplistic and condescending moral homilies. O'Farrell has something deeper in him, but to bring it out, he has to get over himself - a bit like the character in this story.