Hilary Turner Reviews New Novels from Amy Jones and Adam Foulds for EVENT 48/3
Hilary Turner Reviews:
Amy Jones, Every Little Piece of Me, McClelland & Stewart, 2019
Adam Foulds, Dream Sequence, Biblioasis, 2019
At least since 2007 when Britney Spears had her head shaved on camera, the perils of youthful celebrity have been a known quantity. Exposure leads to confidence, confidence to risk-taking, risk-taking to further exposure. Then, gradually or suddenly, cause and effect trade places. Acting out, flaming out and having a meltdown are folded into the performance. Whether a particular public spectacle is scripted or unscripted is a matter of voyeuristic curiosity to devoted fans; only the performer, the object of their insatiable attention, can know when the line between controlled exhibitionism and self-destructive craziness has irretrievably been crossed.
This familiar pattern is enacted twice in Amy Jones’s absorbing third novel, Every Little Piece of Me—once from the point of view of Mags Kovach, lead singer in the Halifax-based rock band Align Above, and again from the perspective of Ava Hart, a cast member in an ill-starred reality show (Where the Hart Is) set in small-town New Brunswick. The two protagonists have much more than geography in common, and their eventual meeting is bound to occur. In fact, their paths have crossed inconspicuously several times before the two young women join forces in a simultaneous revolt against everything that is false, shallow and manipulative in their lives and careers. A magnificent trashing ensues, much of it well over the line into vandalism, arson and assault—deeds that make the injudicious barbershop venture of Britney Spears look like amateur hour.
Though the climax of the story strains credulity, the desire to ‘burn it all down’ arises in a series of steps that fall into place like dominoes. First, the dual perspectives of the novel create a teeter-totter metaphor for the precarious path to stardom. Mags is orphaned, and abused by an older sister; Ava is emotionally neglected by her two ‘Dads,’ both veterans of the entertainment world. At 15, Mags runs away to live with Sam, and the couple slaves to put together a viable band. Ava, initially strong and self-possessed, dwindles in the glare of her younger sister’s short-lived stint as the darling of the TV series. As Mags arrives at musical stardom, Ava watches her sister Eden disintegrate into addiction and violent behaviour. Then Mags is emotionally toppled by Sam’s unexpected death, even as Ava unwillingly signs on to fill the void created by Eden’s absence from the series. In the second place, the fishbowl in which each character lives—the cameras literally rolling all the time in Ava’s experience—makes each vulnerable to the predatory minions of the entertainment industry in sadly familiar ways. As the pressure builds, a Greek chorus of Instagram posts punctuates the novel with overheated commentary on the public and private activities of both Mags and Ava. Jones keeps her narrative under tight control, and the reader in agreeable suspense.
Adam Foulds’s fourth work of fiction, Dream Sequence, takes an even more chilling look at the landscape of celebrity, the narcotic effects of fame, and the potential for life and art to blur into one another. The novel is well titled, for the tight, slightly feverish narrative technique gives the reader little space to evaluate the objectivity of the characters’ perceptions. As in Every Little Piece of Me, two points of view alternate throughout the novel; that of the young American housewife, Kristin, is seemingly the more out of sync with reality. Jettisoned by a narcissistic husband, Kristin lacks any sense of self. The only constant in her world is her obsession with the British television actor Henry Banks. In her childlike mind, Henry is ‘everywhere and nowhere, shaping everything. He was the key signature in which the music of her life was played.’ Kristin, however, is not entirely delusional. She and Henry have met, albeit fleetingly, and she is convinced that fate (kept up to the mark by her compulsive tracking of Henry’s every move) will bring them together as the soulmates they surely are. Her optimism is as boundless as her needs.
Henry is understandably oblivious to Kristin’s existence. He is between gigs, the TV series in the past and his career still largely in front of him. That this hinges upon a long-shot audition with a European director famous for his darkly ironic films only inspires Henry’s own form of magical thinking. A practiced womanizer, he has little time for private life. He must starve himself to match the part; he must refashion himself as a darkly ironic man. For Henry is obsessed as well; he too believes in fate. His public life is a canvas on which he must etch a perfect version of himself. Even as his identity as an actor is bound up with ‘the dream of other people,’ he polishes his image with their fantasies and expectations. As we watch him fetishize every sign of approval and wallow in self-scrutiny, the novel forces us to consider whether Henry’s stalking of stardom is any more grounded in reality than Kristin’s stalking of Henry.
The plot of Dream Sequence is a thing of beauty. From the first page, two flawed protagonists are on a collision course, each certain that destiny can be compelled to cooperate with desire. Signs and omens cluster around key events, their subtle ambiguities making the reader accept and then question the premise that events are foreordained. Yet as all the best tragedies insist, the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves. Kristin and Henry do meet again, of course. Their meeting is not a coincidence, but neither is it inevitable. Free will is not called into question. Choices are made, and they are deeply rooted in the character of each protagonist. Kristin’s lifelong naiveté and Henry’s habitual opportunism come together in the end with the perfect click of a steel trap.
Amy Jones and Adam Foulds are conscious of the ways in which the digital age has made it irresistibly easy to watch other people, and to watch them watching us. When every celebrity has a feed, and when every fan has a platform, the world of entertainment becomes a stifling panopticon, an endless loop of scrutiny and self-evaluation. Both novelists show that world from its claustrophobic interior, dwelling on the way it obliterates the private self, and erodes authenticity by nourishing the self-delusions peculiar to our times. They show it from the outside as well, contrasting the interests of those who pretend for a living with those of their admirers, who both want and do not want to be deceived by pretense.