Reality TV - DNF on page 69

Dead Famous - Ben Elton

I seldom like books written by male writers. They are usually emotionally distant, and this book was no exception. Just the opposite, it’s so distant that there was no protagonist. I didn’t care for anyone in this book. It’s supposed to be a murder mystery, but by page 69, when I stopped reading, I still didn’t know who was murdered. Why should I care?
The story follows two plotlines. The first plotline is a filming of an imaginary reality TV show House Arrest. Ten people are trapped in one small house for several weeks, and the cameras and microphones cover every square inch of the house, following the housemates everywhere 24 hours a day, even to the shower and toilet.
The second plotline is the murder investigation. One of the housemates has been murdered on the day 27 of the filming. The detective crew watches the footage of the show, trying to find some clues, but no tape recorded the murder. How is it possible? Who is the murderer?
Strangely, while I didn’t care for anyone in the novel, I fell in love with the writer. He is a clever, sarcastic guy, and his opinion of reality TV and people in general, biting and disdainful of the blown-up celebrities, is expressed by the lead detective on the case, Chief Inspector Coleridge. The novel is immensely quotable, and I couldn’t resist quoting some of it here.

He was old fashioned because he was interested in things other than astrology and celebrity. … The fact that it had fallen to Coleridge to watch the entire available footage of House Arrest, to sit and watch a group of pointless twenty-something living in a house together and subjected to constant video surveillance, was a cruel joke indeed. It was safe to say that under normal circumstances there was no other show in the history of television that Coleridge would have been less inclined to watch than House Arrest.
Coleridge wondered if he was the only person in the world who felt so completely culturally disenfranchised. Or were there others like him? Living secret lives, skulking in the shadows, scared to open their mouths for fear of exposure. People who no longer understood the adverts, let alone the programs.
[Coleridge:] ‘Why do these people feel the need to define themselves by their preferences in bed?’
‘Well, if they didn’t talk about it, sir, you wouldn’t know, would you?’
‘But why do I need to know?’
‘Because otherwise you would presume they were straight.’
‘If by that you mean heterosexual, I wouldn’t presume any such thing, constable. I wouldn’t think about it at all.’
[Coleridge:] ‘Not much more than two generations ago the entire population of this country stood in the shadow of imminent brutal occupation by a crowd of murdering Nazis! A generation before that we lost a million boys in the trenches. A million innocent lads. Now we have “therapists” studying the “trauma” of getting thrown of a television game show. Sometimes I despair, I really do, you know. I despair.’
‘Yes, but sir,’ Trisha said, ‘in the war and stuff people had something to stand up for, something to believe in. These days there isn’t anything for us to believe in very much. Does that make our anxieties and pain any less relevant?’
‘Yes, it does!’ Coleridge stopped himself before he could say any more.
House Arrest is basically fiction,’ said Fogarty [the show editor]… ‘Like all TV and film. It’s built in the edit.’
‘You manipulate the housemates’ images?’
‘Well, obviously. … People are basically dull. We have to make them interesting, turn them into heroes and villains.’
‘I thought you were supposed to be observers, that the whole thing was an experiment in social interaction?’
‘Look, constable,’ Fogarty explained patiently, ‘in order to create a nightly half-hour of broadcasting we have at our disposal the accumulated images of thirty television cameras running for twenty four hours. That’s seven hundred and twenty hours of footage to make one half-hour of television. We couldn’t avoid making subjective decisions even if we wanted to. The thing that amazes us is that the nation believes what we show them. They actually accept that what they are watching is real.’

The writer feels contemptuous of the stupid and the banal, and I happen to agree with his point of view; I never watch reality TV for this very reason. It selects dunces as its protagonists and targets dunces as its audience. But even our common opinion wasn’t enough for me to care about anyone in this book. Hence, DNF and no rating.