By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
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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."
The New York Times, Spinand Entertainment Weekly offered We're So Famous praise. Publisher's Weekly, an influential publication in the book biz, panned it.
The bad review rankled Clarke. He kicked up literary dust when he shot off a huffy e-mail to the editor-in-chief at PW. He c.c.'d the note to other journalists and editors.
"I am putting up $1,000 of my advance money from Bloomsbury USA for the name of the person who authored the review," wrote Clarke.
Reviews in Publisher's Weekly -- which generally do not carry author credits -- can greatly affect book sales, particularly for a first-time author.
PWeditor Nora Rawlinson responded, telling Clarke that he would be better served taking up his veiled threats with the magazine, not the individual critic.
Clarke's overzealousness put We're So Famous in the news. While many derided him for being thin-skinned, his impassioned if naive response was seen by others as a cheeky and brave gesture.
"Oh, now we are moving into dangerous waters," Clarke says warily. He says that responding to the review wasn't the brightest thing to do. "Bloomsbury put the kibosh on me not to talk about this stuff, but yeah, that's true . . ."
What irked Clarke the most, he says, is the fact that, as a rule, Publisher's Weekly eschews bylines. The young author should be pissed. If only for the sake of credibility, critics should show accountability for their words and opinions.
"It's just my basic thing about reviewing," explains Clarke. "If you see a bad review by Roger Ebert and you say, 'Well, I never agree with him so I'll go see this movie anyway,' at least you have that information."
The Montana-born Clarke moved with his family to Phoenix in 1983. After graduating from Brophy Prep, he worked as a runner for Charles Keating. The job atmosphere, he says, took precedence over studies and he eventually flunked out of ASU, where he was majoring in English. The work, at least, had aesthetic bonuses and allowed him access to the old man's shiny fleet of cars. The book even makes mention of a jailed developer -- a thinly veiled allusion to Keating.
"It was way more interesting to go to work for Keating than it was to go to class. A lot of beautiful women worked there 'cause that's all Charlie really hired. When you're in college and 18, that's pretty much it. Some days it would just be taking all the Mercedeses to the car wash, or driving around and listening to the radio."
After his stint with Keating, Clarke studied creative writing at the UofA, and, later, Bennington College. He continued writing, relocated himself to New York, and worked at the venerable NYC literary agency Harold Ober Associates. He quit the job in December to promote the book.
We're So Famous is actually Clarke's second novel. His first, A Complete Gentleman, which follows a convicted rapist as he tries to resume his life in Phoenix after serving his time in prison, yielded two years' worth of rejection letters, before Clarke decided to essentially self-publish the title through Xlibris, a company associated with Random House Ventures. The experience taught Clarke a valuable lesson: that writing is separate from publishing "even though one depends on the other. My agent sent that book to every publisher big and small, and all rejected it. Of course I was bummed."
When Clarke pitched We're So Famous to his agent, she passed on it. So he got a deal without her. A friend at Bloomsbury got Clarke in the publisher's door. "I sent it to him and he liked it. And that was that. I did it as a shortcut. I did the deal without an agent, which I don't really recommend. What is sort of telling is that the editor at Bloomsbury is only 25, so you can see why he would like this book."
Clarke says the unbearable idea of going through life being unable to read is what sparked him to donate half of his royalties from We're So Famous -- roughly 50 cents a book -- to the Literacy Volunteers of Maricopa County. The nonprofit organization helps adults age 16 and older learn basic reading and writing skills. Maricopa County claims a half-million functionally illiterate people. He says the donation isn't some PR ploy.
Belinda Chron, a staffer at Literacy Volunteers, agrees. "He doesn't get a lot of money for his work. I mean, quite honestly, he's not getting a lot in return. It's not like he's going, 'Hey, look at me! Look at me! Look at all the money I'm donating.'"
Years ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a star. People read his short stories with the same zeal they apply to prime-time television programming today. Fitzgerald's legendary climb to celebrity status -- from decadent Roaring Twenties reveler to Hollywood script doctor to wasted alcoholic -- is ultimately what finished him off as a serious writer.
On the surface, it might appear that the fame gene features prominently in Clarke as well. For one, he threatened a major literary magazine after it ran a sour review of his work; now he's donating precious book royalties to a "cause," and his new novel reads like it's ready-made for lucrative screen options.
Although using a more sensible attention-getting tactic than his book's protagonists, it might seem, to some, anyway, that Clarke has still managed to pull off a clever get-famous-quick scheme.
"In the worst ways, Fitzgerald's writing made him a celebrity," Clarke says, sounding almost aghast at the implication that his actions might be seen as strictly self-serving. "I mean, if I was gonna do that, I would have done it on a grand scale. I wouldn't have come back here from New York, which, of course, is the media capital of the world. Now, being a writer, nobody knows who you are. That is the funny thing. I am a writer, and that's it."
The last comment is a telling one.
After a fall reading tour of colleges, Clarke plans to be back in Brooklyn by January. Because he's no different from most authors of contemporary fiction, he will then be broke, his publishing advance long since spent. February will see him out hunting for a job in the northeastern snow.