Having made a conscious effort to stay away from the media and everything related to the media, I am still born and, for the most part, raised in the United States. This means I see the backhanded humor and social critique in Garrett Socol’s first novel, FAME & MADNESS IN AMERICA.
Sadly, I live among people who genuflect at the feet of celebrities, celebrities being for the most part exceedingly ordinary people famous for the most ridiculous and unworthy of reasons. Names need not be invoked. I think we all know who these media monkeys are. They sell magazines, pump up ratings, and drive internet traffic. They infiltrate our personal space and dirty us with their self-important stupidity.
Fame used to be reserved for the extraordinarily talented or the highly respected. Often, these people used their notoriety for worthy causes, humanitarian efforts. But now I witnessed talent-challenged men and women using their notoriety from my sister’s trial for one cause only: to become more famous. It used to be that sex was the national obsession, but fame undoubtedly replaced it. Fame became the new sex.
Fern, the central character’s sister in FAME & MADNESS IN AMERICA, comes up with this observation. She is the voice of reason amid this cast of media monkeys. She keeps her head clear while the others massage their egos, get us dirty with their wayward ambitions and all-too Machiavellian manoeuvres.
But I don’t want this to digress into a critique of Western civilization even though Socol would probably think it fitting. The thing is, Socol’s first novel deserves more than that.
What we have here is a comical meditation on the origin of what seems to drive the majority of Western people. We all want fame, is what Socol implies, we all want to be seen, and once we are lucky enough to be noticed we want to be noticed more. Everything we do is a step toward fame, no matter how shameful and demeaning. How did we get this way, where and when did we fall?
Like most reflections on the state of things, FAME & MADNESS IN AMERICA isn’t intent on placating our curiosities, it merely gives us an accurate representation of the way things are and lets us build our own ideas, compose our own questions, and perhaps, after feeling revolted in the stomach, take a first step toward change.
Employing Rashomon techniques, Socol narrates the trial of Brenda using a flurry of first-person vignettes. Each piece adds another layer to the drama. The danger of writing any story this way is confusing the reader. For this confusion to be avoided, each vignette has to be engaging enough to keep the reader gripped. I think Socol is sensitive to this. My attention didn’t slide away, but the one time it did, I had little difficulty submerging into the story again. Socol seems to be aware of this potential hitch which is why he took the preemptive care to title each vignette in terms of the character’s relation to Brenda, the protagonist. To quickly orient readers, the book uses headings like these: Fern, sister; Jack Smith, reporter; Dash, friend; Veronica, best friend; Estelle, mother; Isabel Regal, mother-in-law; etc. It works well. In spite of numerous names, I wasn’t lost in space.
But Socol doesn’t just address issues of fame. He also deals head on with the brutal savage that seems to be dormant within people. Per Brenda:
It dawned on me that every single one of us, every human being who feels love and lust and passion and rage, is capable of committing a heinous act, capable of losing control in the blinding, blistering heat of the moment and doing something that could change the course of his or her life forever.
Much later on in the book Byron, the narcissistic nymphomaniac drunk on himself and his growing fame, asks with uncharacteristic compassion:
What’s happening in this world with all these killings? Why can’t we all just get along?
Socol then exercises his power as ‘builder of this world’ and runs Byron into an old lady, resulting in his cup of coffee splashing onto his “white Pink shirt and Kenneth Cole jacket.” Being sick with the disease of fame and madness, Byron immediately loses his temper with the octogenarian and finds tolerance only because the people around him look ready to pounce if he continues to disrespect this elderly member of society. In this way, Byron enjoys no growth within the life of the novel, whereas society in general seems to redeem itself somewhat.
This is one of the interesting things about FAME & MADNESS IN AMERICA, a thing I wasn’t expecting. While it appears to be a rant about the unworthy idols of Western civilization, while 90% of the characters that populate its pages are base murderers who inspire no love in me whatsoever, justice seems to win in the end. Somehow. There is morality here, an unlikely product of rationality and emotions, of brains and hearts acting together on a massive scale. It seems like Socol doesn’t trust in any one person, often exposing his characters’ crudely thought-out motives, but he does believe society, even with the media and its monkeys, will figure things out.
MY RATING =