How do you satirize something that's already a parody of itself? Take reality television, a genre that, even its fans have to admit, has become intensely absurd. 30 Rock writers Tina Fey and Matt Hubbard mocked the reality craze with a fake show called MILF Island ("25 super-hot moms, 50 eighth-grade boys, no rules"), which doesn't sound that implausible when you consider the existence of real shows like Bridalplasty, Hotter Than My Daughter and Date My Mom. And while we haven't yet reached the dystopian future imagined by author George Saunders, who envisioned a show called How My Child Died Violently, it's not that difficult to imagine a future where actual reality television programs begin to outpace their satirized counterparts.
Compared to reviled reality shows like The Swan and Temptation Island, programs like The Amazing Race and Survivor seem tame, almost quaint. But as Andrew Foster Altschul observes in his brilliant new novel Deus Ex Machina, there's not much reality in reality television, and even good intentions can be corrupted to a horrifying degree when money and ratings are involved.
Deus Ex Machina follows one season in the life of The Deserted, a Survivor-esque reality show filmed on an apparently abandoned island. It's told from the perspective of an unnamed producer, still depressed about a recent personal tragedy, and disillusioned and bitter about what the show has become: "What did they have here, except for obsessive fan clubs, a bestselling line of Season Ten action figures, and four hundred and eighty-five thousand Facebook friends?"
The producer watches as the show's carefully selected cast — including Walter, an ex-Marine; Shaneequio, a counselor; and Richard, a hairdresser — competes in a series of dangerous games, in the process sustaining serious physical and psychological injuries. He's particularly obsessed with Gloria, a New York dental hygienist who doesn't say much and seems reluctant to even play the game.
Of course the show is manipulated — there's little real about it except for the danger, resentment and pain. After a contestant is injured by a possibly accidental crossbow shot, the producer admits, "By the end of the week it will have been resequenced ... They'll add an incriminating flashback, stolen shots in slo-mo, until they've created the story they want to tell — and to hell with what really happened."
But it's hard to fake reality, and conditions on the island only deteriorate, culminating in two of the most shocking scenes in recent American fiction. In many ways, Deus Ex Machina is a horror novel, and one much more real, present and frightening than anything about vampires or werewolves.
A former rock journalist and the author of the critically acclaimed rock novel Lady Lazarus, Altschul is a remarkably perceptive and sometimes deeply funny observer of popular culture. But what makes Deus Ex Machina one of the best novels about American culture in years is Altschul's perfect understanding of the syntax and structure of reality TV.
It's darkly funny in parts, but mostly it's terrifying in its urgency and plausibility, and it's impossible to look at television the same way after you've read it. You're forced to wonder whether reality TV — whether our country itself — could ever become the nightmare it is in Altschul's stunning, sad novel: 300 million people, four major networks, no rules.