Novelist Andrew Foster Altschul sums up all the Hobbesian viciousness of reality TV in two words: Sarah Palin. "She just embodies that personal ethic of ‘do whatever it takes,' " he says. It's no surprise, then, that the former Alaska governor and would-be veep makes a key cameo in Altschul's second novel, Deus Ex Machina (Counterpoint), a taut meditation on the savagery behind popular shows like Fear Factor and I Love Money.
Initially, Altschul was leery of putting such a famous, unpredictable quantity into Deus Ex Machina, particularly when she threatened to make his book outdated before it was even published by getting her own reality show. "I had about 10 seconds of worry when I heard about it," says Altschul, "but then I realized that Sarah Palin is a walking reality show. So whether or not she had a show of her own, she was already there."
Altschul first tested his pop culture mettle with his well-received debut, Lady Lazarus, about the unfortunate, but often fame- and profit-inducing propensity of rock 'n' roll stars to die young. That book added to a résumé already thick with stories in McSweeney's, Best New American Voices, and O. Henry Prize Stories. Altschul also directs San Jose State University's Center for Literary Arts and is the books editor for therumpus.net, Stephen Elliot's prominent culture Web site.
Palin, meanwhile, is just the tip of the iceberg with Deus Ex Machina, which offers a disconcerting, minimally embellished account of where reality TV might go in the not-too-distant future: it's the 13th season of a Survivor-esque show called The Deserted, and ratings are tanking. Attempts to feed the bloodlust of a nation of TV viewers include a disgusting tapeworm infection, the carrying off of one contestant in a straitjacket after his arm is broken by network thugs, competitions to see who can hold their arms in termite mounds the longest, and a particularly harrowing scene in which several contestants are waterboarded.
"I tried hard to stay ahead of reality," says Altschul, a challenge when taking on popular culture in a medium like books. "But if The Deserted is worse than what's on TV right now," he continues, "it's only a matter of degree, not kind."
The novel centers around a character known simply as "the producer," a Prospero-like figure who controls everything on his island from the stars in the sky to the aches and pains of his contestants. Altschul switches between the macho, foul-mouthed control room, where the producer and his assistants, techs, and a small army of social media experts fight to squeeze the maximum ratings out of the contestants' suffering, to the contestants, who wage a constant battle against increasingly surreal dangers and their own misanthropic impulses. "I see what's happening in reality TV as a metaphor for a lot of mass culture," says Altschul.
The path to Deus Ex Machina was a rocky one. After graduating from UC Irvine with an M.F.A. in 1997, Altschul assumed his career as a writer was all but assured. "You come out thinking you're bound for glory," he says, "but you're really nowhere." He spent the next several years finding out "what it really meant to be a writer," eventually ditching all his belongings to live for two years in Mexico and Peru. He came back to the States and enrolled in a Ph.D. program in upstate New York, but then dropped out when a novel he had worked on while abroad won him a coveted Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University.
The Bay Area proved to be a perfect match for Altschul. "San Francisco is the best place in the country to be a writer," he says, noting that he finds local writers more collegial and less competitive than in New York City. An added bonus to being in San Francisco, says Altschul, is the distance from publishing's center of gravity in New York, which, he worries, can undermine a writer's independence.
Whether reality TV ends up in the blatant sadism on display in Deus Ex Machina remains to be seen, but to Altschul, the damage is already done. "If reality TV is on its way out, it's only because it's no longer enough," he says. "We're already at the point where lots of people disregard any kind of hard boundary between reality TV and real life." n
Scott Esposito edits the Quarterly Conversation, an online magazine of book reviews and essays.