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Book Review: Deus Ex Machina by Andrew Foster Altschul

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Reality isn’t what it used to be. Nicole Richie, a famous-for-being-famous daughter of the famous, knows a thing or two about revisionist reality: “The great thing about The Simple Life is that it’s a reality show but not based on my reality, … It has nothing to do with my life or my home or my relationships or anything. I’m not open to anything like that.”

Indeed, The Simple Life was one of the most unreal reality TV shows of them all, in the sense that Ritchie and her pampered pal Paris Hilton were shoehorned into every culturally-contrasting scenario the creators could conceive, as they devised and contrived every twist and turn throughout.

It’s a square peg/round hole state of affairs conveyed in the incisive yet bumpy-ride surreality of Andrew Foster Altschul’s Deus Ex Machina, where network muckety-mucks and their machinations over their Survivor-like faltering hit Deserted wrestle for control with the in-the-field producer – to be henceforth referred to only as: “the producer.” These entities in enmity can seem to find no common ground, as they apparently fall out over every grain of sand in the backlot-perfect island — including the hush-hush cover-up over its secret history rooted in exploitative mining and too-hasty relocation of the island’s original inhabitants.

In contention also are the studio-picked “shipwrecked” 10 stereotypes seemingly from Central Casting, including an attractive corporate lawyer, the demanding Marine sergeant, a streetwise gang counselor, a gay hairdresser, as well as a dental hygienist – a moping loner and inexplicable choice who makes no any attempt to be compatible. In any case, in a desperate bid for ratings, a Very Special “Celebrity” episode of sorts casts Sarah Palin, needlessly but briefly trotted out for a sustained cheap shot as the “High Princess of Xim.”

But it’s that kind of intervention that the producer is increasingly chafing against now, a perversion of the original on-the-same-page intention he and the other creators had for the show, fearing most a disintegration into a “series of interchangeable puppet dances obscuring and obliterating the real – until, inevitably, it had taken the place of the real and in so doing, become real.”

At the start, twelve seasons ago, was the audacious idea that without outside intervention, without the games, there was to be just 10 people stranded on a desert island with only cameras to record what happens. Viewers “will see what it is like to be other people. They will learn the truth of the human heart and mind.” But only the producer is left willing to see these ideals through — even amid natural disasters, emergencies, and other “kinetic” broadcasting occurrences  — when tumbling TV ratings, fears of cancellation, and the perceived need to hold onto cushy jobs grow paramount, chipping away the aims to the extent that the ever-more competitively cutthroat Deserted aren’t so much voted off or banished as they are killed off or made to mysteriously vanish.

What happens, though, when one particular “truth of the human heart and mind” is made to be eliminated and vanished, too, if the Burbank studio suits and the island crew start to distort veracity, to shape and shift reality? “The story is the truth. Don’t you know that by now?” one of the producer’s mutiny-minded assistants asks him. “Once it’s told, once you’ve seen it in your mind you can’t unsee it. That’s televolution. That’s what we do here. Fact, history – who cares?”

The defecation hits the oscillation, though, because what Altschul does here in his subtly multifaceted novel is bring in another unexpected layer to put to a lie “the truth.” For a book that’s only slightly over 200 pages, Deus Ex Machina is a rich examination of the concept of free will and reality, within and beyond the titular plot device that sees a corrective and unexpected new character, ability, or object. And with all the settings and characterizations in the book (real or alluded to) – the island staff and technicians, the studio executives and crew — there are all sorts of variations on the theme.

But there’s a building-up to that crescendo, and if it’s slow-going at first to get into the rhythm of Altschul’s enticing and unstructured blurring of fact and fantasy, the back-and-forth give-and-take is rewarding, especially as issues as varied as banishment, insanity, cults, intervention, and the psychology of loneliness are taken up. Also included is the notion that the “whole no-formula thing’s kind of turned into a formula.” I smell new “hit” for Nicole and Paris!

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch