Overnight Sensations 

What happens when being famous means more than how you got that way?

Television -- the concept, not the box -- is a sentient being, a blob feeding off our need to be on it and determined to keep eating until every last citizen of the universe has performed live and on the air. Television won't rest until we're all famous enough to have our own talk shows.

Then there's the American Idol phenomenon. Deciding who is and isn't talented is no longer reserved for executives and ivory-tower types. We get to decide whose lame efforts we're going to waste our money on.

This is bad, because it ensures that success will only follow the lowest common denominator: personalities and talent nonthreatening enough to conjure consensus. American Idol, above all, is emblematic of the strongest movement in every pop marketing niche from hip-hop and sitcoms to classical and art-house: As talent grows into an ever more vague and mediocre quality, we all get to hang on to our dreams of fame.

Or in the words of a great talent scout, "Nowadays the kids don't want to be good, and they don't care about being the best: They want fame. People nowadays don't think they're alive until they're on the television screen."

Simon Cowell? No, but close. It's Cowell's predecessor Hughie Green, a flesh-and-blood impresario who died in 1997 and is a character in Andrew O'Hagan's novel Personality, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction this year.

A former song-and-dance man himself, Green gave it up in the 1950s to begin hosting the British TV talent show, Opportunity Knocks. By 1980, when the novel begins, both Green and his show are London institutions. So when golden-throated thirteen-year-old Maria Tambini is discovered on the tiny Scottish isle of Bute, it's the biggest thing to happen to anyone there since World War II. Green compares his new discovery to Barbra Streisand and Ethel Merman; after winning his contest seven weeks running, Maria is given a brand-new life in London. Established there under the wing of a powerful manager, she doesn't need Green anymore, or her family or old friends for that matter. A record is on its way. our of the States is imm.

Obviously, this is a cautionary tale and is about to go bad in some ways we can predict and some we can't, but O'Hagan, whose Our Fathers was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is good enough to make it worth finding out just how bad it's going to be.

One inspired passage, called "The Evolution of Distance," consists of a series of letters back and forth between Maria and her best childhood friend, Kalpana. As we see Kalpana growing up on Bute, writing to Maria of relationships and school, Kalpana receives increasingly sporadic responses consisting solely of hair and makeup tips so nonsensical and shallow as to arguably not be personal missives from Maria herself but form letters that her management team sends out in response to fan letters.

And there's more to the story than Maria's bubblegum rise and fall. She is a descendant of an Italian family interned by the British during World War II, and O'Hagan plays her charmed existence against her grandmother's life of struggle and sorrow. Moreover, Maria is based on flesh-and-blood British pop star Lena Zavaroni, who died in 1999 after decades spent struggling with eating disorders.

All of this goes on during the glorious morning of the Reagan administration, and while the politics of it seem timely, Maria's downfall makes the novel something of a period piece, though O'Hagan shouldn't be blamed that no one cares about anorexia anymore.

Personality shares much in common with Human Amusements, a novel by Newfoundland-born Wayne Johnston released in Canada ten years ago but newly published in the United States for the first time. Johnston's story is also set in a so-called more innocent age, as though to remind us that television forced questions of fame and privacy and integrity from the moment its first flickering images went out over the airwaves.

"For me," says its child-star narrator, Henry Prendergast, "the early days of television are the early days of everything."

Henry is part of the first generation to grow up in front of the TV, to remember major events only as they were broadcast. He is also one of the earliest child TV stars, first achieving recognition in the dual Goofus and Gallant roles of Bee Good and Bee Bad on his mother's Romper Room knockoff, Rumpus Room.

When he gets too old for the Bee costumes, Henry makes the big time in another of his mother's creations, a weekly drama about the adventures of Philo Farnsworth, the real-life boy genius who helped invent television.

It doesn't matter that Henry can't act, or that he slurs his words. Deals are made, the show becomes a cult hit, and he becomes a star, with all the trappings and traps of fame. Tabloids hound his family, whose secrets begin to leak out. Why is it, everyone wants to know, that Henry's dad, Peter, won't join the family business?

The short answer is that Peter is a writer and refuses to concede that fame is the only end of performance: He would rather be good than well-known. He remains openly hostile to his family's enterprise throughout, baiting the tabloids and insisting on his pride. Ultimately, it is Peter's fate that matters in Human Amusements.

This is where Johnston and O'Hagan diverge, but it is also where Johnston's book suddenly feels like a product of his time. In 2004, the once intractable opposition between book and television has been solved, mostly by the memoir and the TV tie-in. By now, Peter has forgotten all about the evils of TV; his enmity is reserved for the publishing industry.

While Peter's book languishes, his wife's coffee-table tome filled with Henry's childhood photos is a smash success. Peter's mistake isn't in his choice of medium, but his failure to produce a diary of self-promotion. This is the very simple idea grasped by those who understand that success and fame are now one and the same.

In keeping with society's need to banish those who hold up the clearest mirrors, those who best understand this concept are considered mentally ill, despite the unassailable logic behind thinking that Jodie Foster needs to know you exist before she can fall in love with you.

This is the contradiction facing penniless aging punk rocker Jarleth Prendergast (by odd coincidence, no relation to Henry) as he struggles to launch what is certain (to him) to be a very lucrative filmmaking career. As Meredith Brosnan's hyperactive debut novel Mr. Dynamite opens, expat Jarleth is informed that he is due a minor inheritance from a long-forgotten aunt back in Ireland. His situation is so dire that he can't wait out probate, so he asks the lawyer for an advance, and keeps on asking after 1.) he is rebuffed and 2.) the lawyer dies.

No one else is listening. His dreams of a great future in avant-garde Claymation notwithstanding, Jarleth has been thrown out by his wife, shunned by his only friend, and fired. A new lawyer informs him that there is no money. Jarleth's sole purpose now is to assassinate the man whom he believes to be the father of an ex-lover who claimed to have been molested by her dad.

As he grows more and more unhinged, Jarleth's already hectic prose grows more and more chaotic and incoherent. He devotes all his time to his homicidal mission, but takes steps to preserve his legacy. Before heading out to complete said mission, Jarleth leaves instructions for the handling of his unfinished work, including his latest masterpiece, a short film about the Troubles in Ireland, inspired by green mold on an orange.

"Let Prendy's posthumous fart cloud explode in the face of the Philistines!!" he writes, because he just knows that he's about to be famous.

By Andrew O'Hagan
Harcourt, $14

Human Amusements
By Wayne Johnston
Anchor, $13.95

Mr. Dynamite
By Meredith Brosnan
Dalkey Archive, $13.50


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