Almost Famous

Peppered with local rock 'n' roll references, Valley novelist Jaime Clarke's new book proves a sharp satire of celebrity culture

Meet Paque, Daisy and Stella, a trio of trend-trawling, Bananarama-obsessed Gen Y'ers from the Phoenix 'burbs whose lives are dedicated to the quest for fame and celebrity. Never mind that these girls possess zero talent or the aptitude to develop same, they have that need to "make it." They simply know that fame will come, hopefully sooner rather than later. It must. After all, there is nothing else in this life but celebrity.

This unapologetic fame fetish is the thrust of Jaime Clarke's worthy new novel, We're So Famous. The book, which was released in April on Bloomsbury USA, has generated national attention -- both good and bad; Clarke's response to one critical catcall sparked a small furor in publishing circles. Perhaps more remarkably, Clarke is also donating half his book royalties to a local nonprofit group that fights illiteracy.

The story satirizes, with varying degrees of success, a culture in which ambition outweighs talent and integrity as the essential element for "making it." A PR-driven society where celebrity is the new spirituality, fake is the new real, and self-worth is measured in increments of fame. The book pointedly suggests that our shriveling attention spans will keep us looking forward with beaming faces to bigger TV stars, better-looking politicians and comelier teen bands.

The 30-year-old author, and sometime Brooklyn resident, has long called Phoenix home, a fact illustrated in the book's myriad local references: from rockers Dead Hot Workshop and Wise Monkey Orchestra to ill-fated radio station KUKQ to the Thomas Mall and the spot where actor Bob Crane was murdered.

The story, which traces the gloomy shimmer of celebrity through the candy-colored eyes of three teen girls, conveys moments of social commentary; it accurately hints of a culture in which the consummate self-promoters -- those with a fierce hunger for graft -- are the ones who'll prosper.

"I think the culture of celebrity that we have is a grim place to live," Clarke says. His voice is boyish-sounding, with a resolutely sunny disposition. "That was the hard part about creating these characters because you want to make them likable. I do like these characters, but, really, what they are after all is empty and shallow.

"Now so many people are obsessed with becoming famous, or even just getting on TV," he continues. "All this reality TV stuff. I've heard several people say that they would love to be on Survivor just because of the exposure."

We're So Famous unfolds in the voices of Stella, Daisy and Paque. The girls' lives are little more than a series of contrived experiences and fleeting impressions that quickly become as ephemeral as last year's "hot" Super Bowl commercials. Life in a world centered on transience from which no wisdom can be gained.

Paque's Phoenix home, for example, is the only completed house in a failed dream community situated in the desolation near the Estrella Mountains. The physical imagery reflects a lack of spiritual attentiveness or real human contact, mirroring the hollow ambitions of Clarke's characters.

Stella harbors a fascination for dead rock stars and Hollywood suicides. She deserts the Bananarama-inspired group the girls start and splits for L.A., quickly shacking up with a jaded Christopher Reeve look-alike she meets on the set of a TV pilot. She works at a dinner theater that nightly resuscitates crusty Hollywood Babylon fables: the murder of Lana Turner's gangster beau, Natalie Wood's drowning, a medley of auto deaths including those of James Dean and Jayne Mansfield. Later, Stella's precarious fascination with an aging, heroin-addled rock star, Billy Metro, culminates in a lengthy tryst in the John Belushi suite at the Chateau Marmont.

Meanwhile, propelled by a wave of publicity surrounding the murder of a senator's son (they were the last to see him alive), Paque and Daisy are suddenly budding pop stars. That is, until they're caught lip-synching at their highly touted public debut.

The pair flee to Hollywood and hook up with a crap artist, Alan Hood, who casts them in a "film" he is making. The buzz generated by Hood's bogus movie project makes Paque and Daisy Tinseltown "It" girls.

Adversity marked by scandal and humiliation ensues, but not without the requisite coverage from CNN, E! and Daily Variety, and a string of A-list parties yielding photo-ops with preeners like Jennifer Love Hewitt, Vince Vaughn and so on.

Near the end, the girls' TV-eye dreams have muted into nightmares. The bewildered Paque and Daisy reunite with Stella and are set to return to Phoenix disillusioned and empty-handed.

Idolmaker David Geffen steps in and delivers redemption. He offers a movie deal based on the trio's escapades. This, of course, brings the girls' superficial desires to fruition.

Doused in pop-culture references and told with a sometimes-distracting Bret Easton Ellis-like disconnectedness (Ellis actually offers a favorable cover blurb, praising the novel as "Britney Spears narrating The Day of the Locust"), We're So Famous relies on irony to disguise its themes; it seems to purposely masquerade as a made-for-TV movie.

"You know, you can't write a book that's just all doom and gloom," says Clarke. "That's why this book had to be a satire, because hopefully along the way you have a laugh or two about it."

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