Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Excerpt From "Le Star" by James Nowlan

How does it really feel there under those lights in front of the camera?  Hot, uncomfortable, a bit like being on the stand as the witness to a heinous crime?  But they look happy and maybe they are.  Seems as though a lot of people dream of nothing but that and if you’ve gone through everything you have to go through to get there, get to this place where it is, that is the place that everyone is supposed to want to be, then you couldn’t admit to yourself that it wasn’t worth it; you’d have to force yourself to enjoy it or take whatever sort of substances necessary to help you to project a simulacra of joy.

The man on the stage, the halogens shining into his eyes so brightly that he could barely glimpse the audience, didn’t seem to need encouragement.  The expansiveness of his gestures and the extravagance of his facial expressions seemed to be desperately trying to seize the attention of a large studio audience and a continent-wide television public.  One could compare him to a desperate man lost at sea frantically signally at a passing ocean liner in the hope of at least one passenger remarking his flailing shouting form amongst the waves.  The strange color of his skin, a sort of boiled lobster red, might also bring to mind a shipwreck victim, but in his case this inflamed hue had been caused by various skin lightening and darkening agents that he had frequently resorted to in order to conform to the shade of ethnicity demanded by Internet announcers that he assiduously responded to, applying the bleaching cream or swallowing the suntan pills before even receiving an answer, believing that his very willingness to enter in the skin of the character would be felt by whomever it was that might be in charge of the casting and so increase his chances. His morphology contributed as much to the frantic image as his complexion.  Behind flabby jowls that trembled spasmodically an overly developed jaw was clenched.  Massively muscled arms hung alongside a belly that threatened to gush forth from the girdle that was holding it in check, evidence of serious hormonal imbalances provoked by years of abusing steroids that a studied eye would easily discern.

The language that he spoke, something like French or at least something that could be understood as such, in which lapses of grammar attempted to excuse themselves by misuse of argot added a fitting narration to the travesty of his appearance, a badly articulated commentary upon a ruined landscape that we would never wish to visit but might watch on the evening news fascinated by the devastation.  And like a hastily recruited native journalist he recounted a version of events that had more than a bit of bias.

“You don’t know me!  You don’t know what I’m capable of!  Me, I come from the street.  Bourgeois Bohemians like yourselves can’t understand.  I didn’t want to become a violent person; I was forced to.  I grew up amongst the chaos and had to learn to survive with it.  Most of my childhood friends killed someone or were killed by someone.  How many killers or murder victims do you know?  I’ve known too many, too many to ever become just a person like other persons, but by chance I’ve found this craft, acting, that has allowed me to channel my rage in another direction, so I won’t have to hurt anyone.”

This short speech finished, the lights dimmed and revealed that the speaker had been addressing an audience not at all equal to this dramatic revelation.  A group, who seemed to have been the sort who had spent to many years in college to be good for anything else, looked on.  A tall grimly thin individual in a black turtleneck sweater and beret who stood off to one side seemed to be in charge of things.  They looked away from the glare of Rudolph who was squinting against the light to discern their reaction and towards the man who had put him onstage.  Seeing him softly tap the tips of his fingers together in a gesture more like a children’s game than applause they imitated him.  This tiny sound was amplified by Rudolph’s ecstatic post performance revery into the first hint of an acclaim that would soon come thundering forth from a world that was not even capable of anticipating his greatness.  He began to clap as well, and the sound of his prodigious palms being driven together by his swollen biceps reverberated through the empty theatre where this sad conclusion of a pathetic acting seminar was happening.  He clapped louder and louder as if wanting to fill the seats with his enthusiasm quelling what little there was amongst the others who let their arms fall at their sides to watch him impassively as he gave himself an encore.  Glancing over at a monitor that happened to be set up he caught a glimpse of himself, a ludicrous figure with an undersized head thrust forward at the end of a large neck like a performing seal, and he fell silent, looking down at feet that shuffled back and forth trying to escape his embarrassed gaze.

To break this uncomfortable moment the professor stepped forward with a placating gesture, waving jazz hands trying to recapture the paltry energy that was even now dissipating he said, “Let’s do our motivational mantra.”  Robotically everyone made a circle that deformed as Rudolph approached, no one wanting to find themselves next to him holding his hand but at the same time wanting to hide their repugnance.  It even broke apart and came back together several times like a folk dance performed by foreigners ignorant of the social etiquette governing the exchange of partners but then the professor came like a native master and forced everyone into place and intoned by himself the first bar, which was then taken up by the others.

“Je serais riche, je serais célèbre, je serais aimé”, a refrain which caught the ears of some American tourists passing by on the street outside, following the itinerary of a trashy overmarketed best seller, and was taken to be the litany of an ancient cruelly depraved sect.  They stopped.  The garishly covered, overpriced, and flamboyantly written pulp thriller that was their murky guide to the city of light held psalmodical in their pudgy hands.  The tempo accelerated and chanting grew louder, “je serais riche, je serais célèbre, je serais aimé,” and they gazed at one another with bovine wonderment.  Not knowing what was being said they gave all sorts of arcane significance to these three short phrases, “I will be rich, I will be famous, I will be loved”, but if it might be translated for them would they recognize it as a sentiment having its origins in the same country as themselves or would they still refuse to accept its banality?  Inside, heedless now of any eavesdroppers of any language, the chant had taken on the throbbing intonation of a prop plane waiting to takeoff.


The low cultural tourists looked around themselves drugged by the strange energy emanating from the door.  The stone buildings blackened by pollution looked stained with evil and the press of passersby hurrying home to heat up a meal to eat before the evening news seemed animated by some awful force.  They hailed a taxi to flee to their familiar hotel room with the comfort of its mini-bar under a reassuring CNN voice and face beamed into the television by satellite.

In the dilapidated theatre that seldom hosted any more exciting performances or attracted a more enthralled crowd the departure of this audience was somehow sensed, and the bubble of the group’s enthusiasm burst to leave them looking blankly at each other.  Though they had all planned to go off somewhere together afterwards to discuss the months long course that had ended that night they couldn’t seem to conceive a strategy whereby the awkward presence of their cumbersome classmate could be avoided.  So, they hastily left with barely perceptible nods of farewell and the cartoonishly bloated principal player found himself alone with the director of the drama, whose last scene was now to be played to an empty theater.

Rudolph had been staring into the high seats with what he imagined was an expression of arrogant disdain in anticipation of being surely invited somewhere by the numerous admirers he was sure he had made.  So transfixed was he by the idea of the grandiose figure that he must have been making he didn’t even notice the departure of the other students until a harumph of the professor, who was curiously named Henri Ruisseau, brought his attention back to painful realization of his solitude.  But Henri at least seemed to be interested, he was certainly looking at Rudolph with an inquiring gaze and in anticipation of the flattering words that would soon be pronounced by the gazer he put his best attempt at a smile (he would have spent more time in front of the mirror practicing it but he wasn’t looking for smiling roles) onto his face.

But the lines that his instructor fed him were not at all what an extra with such a bit part merited “By the way you haven’t paid for the course yet.”

Since the script that he had already rehearsed in his head for several days, abundant praise and the offer of a role with persons more important than this teacher (the sort of person he been raised in contempt of), hadn’t been followed he was forced to improvise.  With an insolent tone he responded, “Well you know the welfare board they’re supposed to take care of that, you see this is part of my vocational rehabilitation.”

“The welfare board?” muttered the professor vaguely, as if it was an organism of an obscure faith whose beliefs he was unfamiliar with, “well I’ve heard nothing from them, never even heard that I should hear something from them. You see we’re showbusiness professionals not social workers.”

Rudolph was on the point of becoming threatening but this word “professional” gave him pause.  He had basically become a semi-professional welfare recipient because he had failed in his endeavors to become a professional of violent crime.  His failures in this domain shamed him still.  By an unusual series of events he had come or perhaps been encouraged to see the opportunity of portraying violent criminals who appeared much more successful in their violence and their criminality than he had ever been as a sort of compensation.  So, he was at a loss until looking around him he found inspiration.  “And you, mister professor, you think you’re a real professional here in your empty theater?”

Rudolph had expected either aggressive arrogance or cowed abasement in response but the professor, rather like a ninja in a martial arts film that the aspiring actor was very inspired by, seemed to cloud the thoughts of his opponent with a so sudden change of identity that it warped the spirit.  Pacing off in a circle, his hands held before him their fingers splayed in a frozen jest he intoned a murmur that recalled the mantra of the group.  “I was a professional, or what they call a professional because I knew the people that one has to know to be called a professional but something happened something too terrible to speak of, a sort of vengeance of the divine Dionysiac forces through my excess and now I’m condemned to perform paltry pieces of works to no audience.”

Rudolph gave him the contemptuous smirk that he held in reserve as the parting response to any who he felt held nothing more of interest to him and he strode away giving a kick to a stray chair that had the misfortune to find itself in his path.  He was going to slam the heavy door with no backward glance but for some reason believing that the professor must have been watching his departure with some disappointment he looked over his shoulder before slinging the door shut to see the professor standing in a ray of light that the sun had contrived to shine down upon him through a shutter that had been left open.  The darkly clad man appeared to be a disembodied head floating in space staring off into the void.

This vision continued to haunt Rudolph on his long train ride out to the housing project that he inhabited.  The faces on the commuters all seemed to know things that he would never understand.  He was relieved to finally get home and turn on his television, the most luxurious element in his home that he had only been able to buy when the social services department had accidentally sent him an extra check.  Its expensive light seemed to chase away the dreariness of his life and the squalor of his surroundings.  And as often happens the television was by chance tuned to a program that might have been made just for him.

The high-tech screen displayed the image of an industrial building from another age, the terrible teeth of its jagged roof biting its final morsels from a sky that it would soon no longer touch ever again, and the cheerfully designed title of the emission "Star Factory" that was to lead the postindustrial audience into a brighter future.  The robotized camera which was capturing this panned vertiginously down and to the right to reveal the host of the show who was actually having trouble hiding his distaste for the proceedings but the pained look upon his face would be interpreted as a sort of empathy by thousands of viewers more or less like Rudolph (but hopefully very few as like Rudolph as Rudolph was like Rudolph).  As the camera zoomed in, the assistant director cued him to speak, and he detached his lips which seemed stuck together with some invisible glutinous substance.  "Welcome dear viewers to a spectacle that will surely expand your vision of this world we all live in together".  The pursing of the lips and squinting of the eyes that was provoked by the idea of his being "together" with the filthy repugnant mass of mindlessly drooling spectators provoked for some reason a sort of infantile response similar to that many of them had felt when their parents stared down at them in their crib and they hesitated to change the channel.  A spectacle so perverse that a sane mind would find it more reasonable to go out in the street and start randomly shooting people than continue watching was to be presented for their edification.

Star Factory had been conceived by a strange cocktail of factors that had coalesced in divergent sundry and sordid locations to give birth to a strange hybrid: an industrial restructuring program and a top-rated TV show in one.  The bizarre liaisons that had led to such brutally banal product being put on the market (that ranged from perverse acts in cheap hotels and nightclub toilets to hushed discussions between highly paid corporate lawyers in corner offices) were known to few and better forgotten by everyone.  And now the unfortunate host (or rather fortunate considering his salary) was trying to peddle it to the public like a meth-whore back on the sidewalk after just having turned a quick trick.

As described in voice by him and artfully illustrated by a series of expertly edited images, the soon to be laid off workers of the sinister factory he was standing before had been presented a proposition that would open an undreamed-of world of opportunity for them.  Instead of continuing in their dreary repetitive tasks, they had been given the chance to become stars!  Yes, experts of the entertainment industry were now teaching them to sing and dance and they would soon be on stage before the world or at least the French television audience.  Those whom destiny had chosen to be stars would be propelled to the stratosphere, their image beamed by satellite around the world, not much mention was made of the fate of the rest but one would imagine a badly paid service job, limited health care, and a miserable life.

Some stray synapse (he had quite a few of these having had an eventful life and many of the events of it having been cerebral [not in the sense of intellectual but more of blunt trauma induced brain damage]) made his finger twitch upon the control button and switch to a news program that was being watched at the same time by his recently ex-drama teacher in his even dingier apartment in a rapidly gentrifying quarter of Paris.

Henri Ruisseau always watched the evening news in hope of hearing of something nasty business having happened to the well-known individuals that he had once frequented and he felt had betrayed him.  By some coincidence, or perhaps a tactic of counter programming the news was presenting the same scene as the entertainment program but from a slightly different perspective.  The aging factory where the improbable reality show was to take place looked even grimmer in the background behind the rusting spike-topped gates.  A ragtag group of sign waving protestors was assembled before these gates the color level settings in the video processing computer of the remote news van investing their faces with a ruddy hue which made them look as if they had been drinking more than they had been.  As the camera zoomed in on the leader of the group a technician cranked up the red level till the face on his monitor glowed and the union representative’s image almost bled into a blur as he started to speak.

“It’s all a hoax!  The winners of this competition were chosen in advance.  They didn’t know how to do their jobs but they were hired anyway.  Afterwards I caught them several times singing and dancing in the toilets.  I thought it was some sort of kinky stuff I’d never heard of.  When they announced this goofy restructuring program I knew right away what it was.  None of us who’s been really working at this factory for years has got any chance of becoming a 'STAR' anyway I think the idea of becoming a star is completely stupid they’re all a bunch of bisexual scientologists or something it’s probably being promoted by some kind of crypto-royalists to stupefy people to the point where they’ll accept anything.”

James Nowlan is the author of the novels Security, Killebrity, and Shock And Awe.  He is also a filmmaker, and I am quite happy to feature his work on drinkdrankdrunk!

And here's some bonus Yeast? for James and you!:

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