“ART may imitate life but life imitates TV.” So opines Rasmus Karn in one of his many direct quotations that intersperse the third-person narrative in PJ Vanston’s engrossingly gross novel.
Arising from seemingly nowhere, the founder of reality channel X-TV acts like a modern prophet in holding a mirror up to the world to show it for what it is and foretelling its possible future.
Rasmus’s vision and reality is of a world dominated by increasingly vile, demeaning and murderous reality programmes.
Broadcasting via the internet and so beyond the usual regulatory jurisdictions, X-TV quickly establishes its ratings dominance with output such as Execution Night – Live! and Granny Gang Bang.
Cast aside at an earlier point in his career as a scriptwriter, Rasmus seeks revenge on the BBC and in particular its rising star, the particularly unsympathetic Minty Chisum.
The organisation she comes to lead is both institutionally haphazard and culturally bewildered by, and envious of, X-TV’s approach.
So, as the ratings war heats up, even more bizarre programmes are scheduled and ever more attempts made to undermine the competition hatched as the insurgent and Establishment standard-bearers for corporate media supremacy fight it out.
Vanston offers cartoonish violence and a cohort of almost — but not quite — vain and vile characters.
Their overriding sense of power, ambition and money utterly destroys everything in their path.
This is certainly not a book for the faint-hearted but even those made of tougher mental constitutions will probably eventually weary of the Reservoir Dogs-style narrative, a reflection of the author’s failure to properly pace his creation in a manageable way.
After a couple of hundred pages of African presidents eating roasted toddlers and Chisum’s faux Tourette’s syndrome given maximum expression, the reader is liable to get a little blase about it all. Even the last days of the Roman empire must have eventually dragged a bit for those involved in the orgies and schemings.
The treatment of the “masses” as little more than passive recipients of whatever nonsense is being squirted at them by TV moguls is reductive.
The only time that “ordinary” folk take matters into their own hands is when they riot because their favourite programmes are banned.
But the book is saved from being just another overworking of the pulp fiction genre by Vanston’s subversive humour.
Among the mayhem he offers us Hugo, a clumsy and benighted BBC executive whose incompetence, misfortunes and bumbling optimism are Panglossian in their metaphorical and literal blindness.
Best of all is his prolonged assault on the reputation of the man credited more than most with slicing away at the educational and aspirational aims of British television.
Sir Peter “I’m loving it” Baztanza is only a channel-hop away from looking and sounding very similar to one Sir Peter Bazalgette, who brought us the soul-destroying Big Brother and Deal or No Deal?
A gnomic and treacherous operator, Baztanza’s ending is both justifiable and a homage to his grandfather’s major engineering achievement, the creation of much of London’s sewerage system.
But Rasmus, simultaneously both omnipresent and unknowable, remains dominant.
Yet he and his real-life equivalents, who so poison and manipulate our societies, need to be removed to ensure that TV, like art, really reflects the lives we live now and wish to live in the future.