My rating: 4 of 5 stars
(Reprinted from my review at TheRumpus.net) I always like to get my overall impressions of a book out of the way at the beginning in case someone is too impatient to read my entire review. With that said, I really liked Andrew Foster Altschul’s Deus Ex Machina. You should probably go pick yourself up a copy.
On the surface, the novel is about reality television, specifically, a show that is ostensibly a cross between The Truman Show and Survivor (with aspects of nearly every other reality show ever created sprinkled in). But to say that the novel is about “a reality show on a distant island” would be to miss the multiple wonderfully-textured layers Altschul has weaved in so skillfully within the books tightly-packed 203 pages.
It is possible that I read far more into the novel that what is actually there, but once you dig underneath the ten original contestants, the desert island, the extreme focus on ratings and the shady powers-that-be who run the show, you see that the book is really a metaphor for humanity in its own postmodern and metafictional way. The opening perfectly captures the feel and pacing of the novel to come:
On the island they talk about everything, but they don’t talk about love. Conversation is constant, even after the day’s tasks are done, goals achieved, challenges met. Once they’ve banked the fire, posted a sentry, checked the stars one last time for messages, they collapse into a makeshift yurt… huddle together for warmth—that’s when the whispers arise: Did you hear something? Do you think they’ve forgotten us? I’m cold. How did this happen? Don’t come near me. What in god’s name is that smell?
The contestants are called the Deserted, people who are left to fend for themselves on an island essentially miles from anywhere. There is no production intervention allowed. The cameras roll and whatever happens will happen. Free will is stressed, essential. It allows for the contestants to “reveal their true selves up close” unimpeded by a higher power—I’m sorry, I mean the show’s producers.
I personally read the island as a metaphor for Earth. A hunk of rock displaced in the middle of nowhere, lacking any possibility for outside help or intervention. The network executives are a laissez faire God and the Deserted are us, human beings. It’s the evolution of reality TV—televolution.
But forget the question, “what is reality TV?” Altschul forces us to ask ourselves, “what is reality?” Sections in the book depict the show’s production staff putting on acts between themselves and afterwards, asking each other how they didin the event that production footage gets spliced in with footage of the Deserted. Everything is filmed, everything is fair game. But does any of it matter?
Altschul wants to show us ourselves through the lens of the Deserted. He also wants to show us that we are always acting, performing for an audience we can’t exactly name. To be accepted, to gain adoration on the island is priority number one. Well, perhaps it’s priority number two — making sure we win (at whatever) is priority number one. To be disliked, to be not accepted is death. To be voted off the island, to be exiled, is even worse. So then who are we? According to Altschul, we are the person who’s “playing ourselves,” not unlike a video game player controlling an avatar, a virtual likeness of themselves—or rather, who they’d like to be—in The Sims. At some point, I also realized I haven’t been talking only about the book in this review. It seems Altschul has struck his intended chord.
What had once been about free will, about the unpredictable ways of the heart, all of it had been overridden by the show with its one, paramount directive: Crush everything in your path… Theories have been breaking down recently, and the producer can no longer afford to let events be shaped by other hands.
Oddly, the producer is the character who experiences the most cognitive dissonance about intervening at all. Even when characters are itching themselves mad or suffering the effects of worms burrowing deep into their nervous system, the producer resists pushing a button to ease the contestants suffering. Because then it wouldn’t be organic. Because then it wouldn’t be real. Only then you find yourself in a circular conundrum asking yourself what real even means. In this way, the character of the producer is very much like our Sims player, or maybe that is precisely what he’s trying not to be.
So that’s it in a very complex and not at all tidy nutshell (seeing as how I despise spoilers, there of course will be none). The book does a number of things well, but particularly, it makes the reader question his or her priorities. It makes the reader question themselves, who they are? and what, exactly, is real? if anything is at all. When all is said and done, who are you performing for?