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Existential Cocktail

a review by Mimi Albert

Deus Ex Machina, a novel by Andrew Foster Altschul, Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2011, 208 pages, $14.95 paperback,

"On the island they talk about everything, but they don't talk about love."

With this succinct opening line of his new novel, Deus Ex Machina, Andrew Foster Altschul manages to characterize, not only the complex interactions which take place between its covers, but the innate tempo, language, and vocabulary of our present-day world as well.

Altschul is a writer whose voice is frequently heard in the centers of our fast-paced and densely populated literary community. Until very recently, he was book editor of the well-regarded online review, The Rumpus; he's also a frequent contributor to national publications such as Best American Stories, McSweeney's, O. Henry's Prize Stories, and Ploughshares. Altschul's first novel, Lady Lazarus, received a coveted Northern California Book Reviewers' citation as one of the best novels written by an author of this region, and garnered great reviews and well-deserved attention.

In Lady Lazarus, Altschul explores the hype surrounding aspects of the literary world as well as of the rock scene; his book conveys a seductive yet jarring portrait of the lure both of success and of self-destruction in those métiers. Similarly, in Deus Ex Machina, Altschul speeds us, perhaps even more precipitously than he did in his previous work, into a realization of our hunger for simultaneous entertainment and bloodshed: the kind of existential cocktail which undoubtedly intoxicated the mob at gladiatorial battles in ancient Rome. Now, however, Altschul's exploration of the human psyche in our time involves a completely different venue for the twinning of art's creative and destructive sides. The "Deus Ex Machina" in his present book is no other than the friendly, squat, and placid living-room companion of our most private hours. I refer to the television set, the TV, our "mother's helper," which few of us can entirely live without.

After opening with an appropriate quotation from Plato, the book immediately thrusts the reader into the fantastical, humanly engineered and pre-fabricated world of 'reality' TV. The reality show in question, and its participants—appropriately designated "The Deserted"—is to be set, for the purposes of the current season, on a small, uninhabited island off the coast of West Africa. The indigenous population of this island has long since vanished into the smoke and rubble of modern civilization, leaving behind pitifully few manifestations or artifacts of its existence. Its way of life, such as it was, has now been replaced by that of a mob of television personnel and their creations: makeup artists, electronic experts, camera crew, sound crew, costume and set designers, and an accompanying staff of factotums, stylists, cooks, servers, and secretaries. There are also a director and an on-site producer, both of whom are subordinate to an even more magisterial presence, an über-producer who issues commands through the magical intervention of cell phone, simultaneous online video transmission, instant messaging, FAX, and various other electronic miracles, too numerous to mention, from his lavishly accoutered shrine back in L.A.

Sharing the island with the hapless TV staff and drones, but generally unaware of their existence, are the current season's participants. The real 'deserted.' Each of these fortunate beings has been chosen over masses of hopeful others, to compete for the grand prize—which will be bestowed upon the one lucky winner who will have triumphed in all the intended trials (and in a few unintended trials as well), by the last day of the show's final week. For the titillation of the TV audience, hopefully glued to their wide screens as the show unfolds 'live', week after week, the Deserted in this season's presentation are supposed to have escaped death after their plane crashed into the ocean near the island during a storm (which consisted of man-made 'special effects'). Each of these escapees—carefully picked, scanned, coached, signed on and protected by contract—represents a type of real or 'ordinary' being with whom the TV audience will supposedly identify, or perhaps despise—or both—while watching at home in their darkened living rooms. To satiate the varied tastes of the roaring public, this year's cast of The Deserted includes a prototypical retired Marine sergeant; an attractive and spunky female math teacher from the Bronx; another sexy lady, a lawyer who calls herself (and acts like) "Candy;" Shaneequio, a gang outreach counselor from Watts; a stereotyped gay hairdresser named Richard (who proves his mettle as the series winds on); a cute young female postal worker from Wisconsin; and Gloria, a dumpy but determined dental technician, whose presence on the show no one can quite figure out. Last but not least, however, there's Simon, presumably an actual, living, working poet from a university in Massachusetts, the main question about whom is: "Why is he here?"

At least temporarily in charge of this unruly cast, as well as of all the technicians and crew, is the show's producer. Although he's surrounded by associates and subordinates with names, and is assisted by a strangely beautiful and enigmatically scarred woman named Miley, the producer himself is given no other name, and even very few physical characteristics. Despite this relative anonymity, however, Altschul seems to offer the producer to readers as an active observer of almost everything that takes place.

Early in the novel's action, and considering the present cast of non-actors portraying the Deserted, the producer comments to an associate, "In a million years…you wouldn't think to do the things they (the Deserted) do. It's almost as though there's a script. But who's writing it?"

"Televolution," his companion responds smoothly, using what is apparently a coined term in the TV world. "It's more than that," the producer snaps back. And then, as if somehow foreseeing a dark event which might well unfold during the shooting of this season's episodes, he adds, "It's inhuman."

He emerges, as the action continues, an ever more realized—and harassed—character. The Übermensch producer back in Hollywood doesn't seem to like him very much; further, the various catastrophes of the Deserted's current season soon begin to overwhelm the show's content. Not only are there the usual problems: illness, accident, romantic competition and entanglement—but the producer becomes more and more certain that he'll be demoted by the end of the series. Given the vagaries of the TV world, he may even become as anonymous as any of the Deserted themselves. He tries to remain calm with the help of a well-stocked storehouse of yogic asanas and mantras; with a collection of rare and significant rocks gathered around the world; with an occasional drinking binge; and with his own memories of a happier time. (He's haunted by thoughts of his dead and unfaithful wife, whom in his own, airily committed sort of way, he really loved.) He even has his living quarters periodically sprayed with a decoction of scented rainwater, to soothe his senses. Nonetheless, like so many of the Deserted, the producer ultimately appears to be stranded; isolated. At risk.

Despite this, it's the vision presented through the producer's eyes which gives dimension to Altschul's story. When the TV compound is unexpectedly invaded by commandos, he's the one who's called upon to approach the general in charge of the invasion. He's also the one who communicates with the director, and with the overlord Executive Producer back in the States. Deus Ex Machina begins and ends with him, as if he were a kind of guide through the book's complexities, its deepest caves (which he alone explores), its most desolate landscapes.

"The producer hears every word," Altschul writes. "Every curse, every groan, every grumbled aside." Although the book is written in Altschul's intense and gifted voice, it's the producer's point of view and perception which inform the only notes of reason in the chaos of the Deserted's ranks—players, crew, invaders, guest stars—everyone. Through the producer's eyes, Altschul gives us the book's sense of an abyss both psychological and geographic; of a disaster waiting just beyond the next page. We are made to look more clearly at the world in which our own greed and violent fantasies have been created and then nurtured; and from which, if we wait too long, it may not be possible to recover.

Mimi Albert is fiction editor of Poetry Flash. Her novels include Skirts and The Second Story Man. She teaches fiction writing online for UC Berkeley Extension, and lives in Oakland, California.

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