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How I Became a Famous Novelist
By Steve Hely
Black Cat / Grove/Atlantic
Projects of metafiction (for example, books about authors writing books about authors) are notoriously difficult to pull off, simply because of the large circle-jerk factor involved, and the way such a project can easily spiral down into an endless navel-gazing masturbation session; now add the extra complexities of trying to make such a project a wacky comedy, in that by definition such humor is required to be broad and full of stereotypes, and it becomes easy to see why for every Wonder Boys that exists, we also have a thousand Swimming Inside the Suns. But lo and behold, it's actually pulled off by former Letterman writer and Emmy nominee Steve Hely in his 2009 How I Became a Famous Novelist, even more impressive in that this is his debut novel. I have to confess, it had me laughing so hard this week while out at the cafes, I was getting dirty looks from the people at the tables around me; and that's a rare thing for me anymore, something I always take as a good sign. As with all books of this type, it's not going to be for everyone, and for sure a wide swath of you will end up furiously rolling your eyeballs at it no matter how good it is; but for those who occasionally enjoy a well-done comedy that takes the p-ss out of the publishing industry, this will be right up your alley.
Because that's what this basically is, a complete and utter indictment of nearly every aspect of the publishing industry, tackled one sector at a time; for, see, the entire thing is seen through the eyes of our "anti-villain" main character Pete Tarslaw, a bitter slacker who writes fake college application essays for ignorant rich high-schoolers for a living, and who was born with a natural gift for mimicking the writing styles of others. Pete randomly decides one day that he wants to have a bestselling novel, simply as a way of showing up his ex-girlfriend at her wedding, coming up in another six months; and this is where Hely starts his cynical look at the industry as well, by poking holes in the careers of such bestselling hacks as Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Mitch Albom and Nora Roberts, not to mention adult-education writing workshops and the tittering female fans of Victorian erotica who populate them. But if this was all the story consisted of, it'd be worthy of not much more than a short at McSweeney's or the like; the book only gets truly brilliant after Tarslaw actually gets the book signed, at which point we enter the world of tired, jaded, pencil-pushing editors at the mercy of their corporate overlords' marketing departments, which serves as just the starting point for the universe of dysfunction Tarslaw enters once his book is actually out.
That's the biggest thing I want to emphasize today, that the main reason Famous Novelist works so well is that Hely has a complex understanding of just how the publishing industry works, displaying a wide range of hatred instead of just concentrating on easy targets like so many metafictional comedies do -- by the time the story is over, he has offered up vicious parodies of such diverse character types and institutions as oversexed academes, televangelists who manipulate bestseller lists through their cash-flush congregations, trashy afternoon talk shows designed for New Age soccer moms, earthy Vermont lesbians, Brooklyn-dwelling hipster douchebags, the Iowa Writers Workshop, Entertainment Weekly, product placement specialists, the ABA BookExpo, and pretentious non-producing MFA students, not to mention such easily recognizable real people as Lindsay Lohan, Harvey Weinstein, Barbara Walters, James Frey, Michiko Kakutani, Harriet Klausner, Jessa Crispin, Miss Snark, and yes, yours truly*. And that's the real key to a book-length metafictional comedy working, is that Hely makes his skewering both expansive and specific, not only working hard to come up with as much stuff to parody as possible, but making many of these parodies so obscure that only the truly dedicated will get them, even while leaving in enough broad references to Stephen King and Danielle Steele that a general audience can enjoy it too.
But the final key to Famous Novelist being so successful is something almost the opposite of all this, and is why so many metafiction projects end up falling flat on their face, which is that Hely injects a healthy dose of sincerity and heart into the story as well, ironically showing us by the end why storytelling is so important to society in the first place; and in a twist so ingenious that I wanted to jump out of my chair and scream "FREAKING BRILLIANT!," Hely accomplishes this through an episode of Oprah, using a premise typical of her show as an entirely snot-free example of why people bother reading books to begin with, despite the thousand headaches and fools he just got done describing in the 300 pages previous. Certainly a metafictional project doesn't need to have such a non-ironic element in order to be a success, but certainly Famous Novelist is much better than other such novels for it, and is the detail that will have you continuing to think about this book long after you're done reading it.
Now, make no mistake, an author can only get away with one book like this in their career, and it's still to be seen whether Hely has the chops to write another novel this solid once getting away from highly gimmicky concepts; but at least this book is nearly perfect for what it aims to be, high praise from a guy who usually can't stand such self-referential tomes. It comes highly recommended to my fellow erudite book lovers, and especially those so mired in the industry that they will get all of the dozens and dozens of jokey references made within.
Out of 10: 9.4
*Well, okay, he doesn't mention me specifically; but he does have this whole brilliant rant about nihilistic, overeducated, self-hating litbloggers who maintain websites with arcane and meaningless names, a category I fit into as snugly as a hand into a glove.