Thursday, October 29, 2009

Book: How I Became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely (2009)

You have no idea how bizarre it was to attend a literary festival after reading this book.

Pete Tarslaw receives an invitation to his former girlfriend’s wedding and reacts the way many of us would: he vows to become, well, a famous novelist. That way on the big day he can outclass the other guests and make his ex rue her decision. Pete’s not out to write a good book, just a popular one. Armed with a list of what such an opus must contain – lyrical prose, lots of food references, some kind of club and at least one murder – he sets out to conquer the bestseller list.

Hely, a former Letterman staffer now on 30 Rock, pulls off a singular trick. He manages to send up everything related to publishing. Nothing is spared. Amazon, writing workshops, MFA programs, editors desperate to get into the film business, self-serious book blogs. He serves up a note-perfect parody of Entertainment Weekly’s simultaneously knowing and vacuous house style. The excerpts from other books are particularly vicious; he includes a few paragraphs from a crime novel that aren’t far removed from ones I’ve seen in print. By the halfway point, he was getting me to laugh on the basis of titles alone. (The Widows’ Breakfast? Come on!) Unlike many satirical novels it holds up to the end, which also packs an emotional kick.

But as funny as the book is – and it is, howlingly so – it’s also chilling. With his clinical determination to anatomize popular fiction and create a Frankenstein’s monster version of his own solely to one-up his girlfriend, Pete Tarslaw is a soulless beast straight out of noir. It’s as if a Patricia Highsmith protagonist took up a pen, or one of Jason Starr’s characters turned reporter. (Jason Starr, Reporter. Get it? Yeah, I knew it was a reach.) That dark drive only makes Pete’s story more hilarious. I can’t recommend this one enough.