Ben Greenman, Celebrity Chekhov
A novel about the contemporary Chekhovian archetype — the celebrity
To understand the premise behind Ben Greenman’s Celebrity Chekhov is a multi-step process, so stay with me for a minute: the monumental Russian writer Anton Chekhov wrote great short stories. They probed the complexity of human character — in particular, exposing the weaknesses and depravity that plague most humans’ souls. Today, when we ponder human weakness, we look not to our neighbors or within ourselves, but to…Lindsay Lohan. Tiger Woods. Mel Gibson. The contemporary Chekhovian archetype is a celebrity.
Sound a little farfetched? Don’t sweat it. These stories are pure pastiche, brimming with the pleasures of playful anachronism. Witness Billy Ray Cyrus, in “At the Barber’s,” half-bald from sickness, trying to weasel a free shave from a down-and-out barber in love with his daughter, Miley. Or “The Darling,” where twice-widowed Nicole Kidman has an affair with Brad Pitt, a young actor who “enjoys architecture and activism.” In Chekhov’s original, Brad Pitt is a veterinary surgeon named Smirnin, but these details, as Greenman illustrates, are negligible when there are greater human truths to be revealed.
For the most part, Greenman maintains Chekhov’s language and story structure, aside from occasional allusions to, say, texting. Readers Jeff Woodman and Kathleen McInerney maintain a formality of tone that is inevitably ironic given the high/lowbrow mashup, though Chekhov certainly brought a bitter wit of his own to the table. The strongest stories, however, are the ones that achieve a true sense of pathos. I feel for Oprah, who replaces Chekhov’s heroine in “An Enigmatic Nature,” as she details the ways in which, despite her riches and celebrity, she is still irremediably unhappy. If some of the other stories have a bit of a Mad-Libs quality to them, there is none of that here. Oprah inhabits the role of the aristocratic Russian woman fully — as if she’s playing her in a movie.