Monday, January 7, 2019

Book Review: "The Spectators" by Jennifer duBois

Both a commentary on the dysfunction incited by the sensational talk show culture of the late 1990s and a meditation on the gay community before and during the AIDS crisis, Jennifer duBois' upcoming book The Spectators is at times beautiful and lamenting, at others meandering and confusing.

Matthew Miller is a talk show host whose show, "The Mattie M Show," is a spectacle. With programs that focus on taboo relationships (including a man and a goat) and routinely feature fighting (a la Jerry Springer), the show becomes a cultural lightning rod, one of those programs that commentators like to point to as a sign that our society is in decline.

When a shooting occurs in an Ohio high school, and it turns out the students responsible were huge fans of the show, Mattie becomes an object of intense scrutiny, as does the show bearing his name. The more his critics debate the show's sensationalism, whether it is staged or authentic, and what its role was in the tragedy, the more people—even those who work on the show—realize how little they know about Mattie.

As Cel, the somewhat disconnected, disenfranchised publicist for the show, tries to figure out who her boss really is and how they might right this sinking ship (if she even cares to), she starts to hear rumors of Mattie's past, as an ambitious politician whose career was met with scandal. Does this explain Mattie's attitude toward the show's problems, or hint at what his next step might be should the show get canceled?

Meanwhile, Mattie's former lover, Semi, a playwright, tells a different story, a story of Mattie in the carefree yet politically tense 1970s in New York City, when he went from lawyer to idealistic politician. Through Semi's eyes, we see how the gay community transformed from one of merriment and freedom to one wracked by the horrors of AIDS, how it affected the culture, politics, relationships, everything.

While there was a link between Semi's relationship with Mattie in the past and the Mattie of current times, quite often it felt like The Spectators was two separate books. The chapters narrated by Semi—some of which felt like they were being told by a Greek chorus of those whose lives were touched by AIDS—were beautifully written, poignant, even emotionally searing at times, but when the narration shifted to Cel and the issues with the show, I started to lose interest.

The discussion about media sensationalism and its role in society's crises is certainly a relevant one, yet I didn't feel like the book was willing to stake out a position whether those who foment antagonism or appear to embrace spectacle and falsehood have any responsibility for prejudice, violence, or other actions taken by their viewers or listeners. But even more frustrating for me was the fact that Cel had very little charisma as a character let alone a narrator. Much of her interactions with other characters seemed stilted or stammering, and it seemed crazy that a popular show would employ such an inarticulate person as its publicist.

duBois' talent for imagery and emotion was particularly evident in those chapters narrated by Semi and others. There were many passages which I read more than once and thought were almost poetic. Sadly, the book as a whole didn't work for me. I almost wish the whole book could have followed Mattie, Semi, and his friends through the 1970s and beyond rather than get distracted by the whole issue with the television program. Oh well.

NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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