Friday, October 06, 2006

The Greatest Show On Earth - Daniel Scott Buck

Reality TV. As a target for satire, it undoubtedly falls into the "fish in a barrel" category; it's so ludicrous that it's barely even worth mocking any more. Still, it's such a pernicious and pervasive phenomenon that you can't blame writers from taking on the subject, despite the difficulty in finding fresh approaches to the stale and overused source material. This book doesn't entirely succeed in creating a bitingly original satire, but it's a good effort, and it doesn't fail completely either.

The Greatest Show On Earth is not a professionally-published book, but a Print-On-Demand one from iUniverse. Not the sort of thing I'd normally read, but I saw it recommended on the POD-dy Mouth review site and thought I'd give it a go. For a self-published book it's surprisingly good, and it's a damn shame Buck chose to go this route when the services of a decent professional editor would have sorted out the main problems the book displays - despite some excellent bits of writing, it does have quite an unpolished feel.

The story is told from two viewpoints - Frank, the long-suffering boyfriend of a psychotic drama queen, and Carol, a quack therapist who specialises in repressed memories, past-life experiences and multiple personality disorders, and generally drives her patients to drug addiction and suicide. Both viewpoints alternate chapters, and use the first person - unfortunately, they seem to have exactly the same voice. There is nothing in the style to distinguish the two and so the start of each chapter saw me scrabbling for textual clues about who was speaking this time. Frank is also a much more believable character than Carol - it's much easier to relate to his troubles with histrionically-inclined girlfriend Meme, than with an unscrupulous therapist who views her clients' suicides as little more than an inconvenience.

The character of Carol is one of the biggest weaknesses in the book. The fact that she sounds exactly like the world-weary and cynical Frank is problem enough, but it's also very unclear as to whether she really believes in her therapies, or if she's just in it for the money. Buck seems to be trying for both, but the ambiguity of this is never played out and ends up just being slightly irritating. Her areas of "expertise" also strike a wrong note - yes, Reality TV, modern satire, check. But repressed memories of satanic abuse? Another fish-in-a-barrel topic, and one that doesn't even have the excuse of being current - it gives the book a distinct feel of having missed the point.

The story begins very simply - a circus showman type is putting together a reality TV show about Carol's insane therapy techniques, and Meme, fresh from failing an audition and feeling the need for fame, is recruited as her test subject. Carol then proceeds to instill Meme with a whole new set of neuroses, the show is a terrific success... and then everything becomes rather more surreal. Frank finds that the national obsession with the show has spilled over into all aspects of life; eventhe police and emergency services are now working for the show. This is the hook, this is the element that would make this book more than just some lazy jokes at the expense of cheap TV and its attendant attention-seeking freaks... if only it wasn't handled so clumsily. The subtle shift into surreality clashes with some brash and obvious jokes and some moments of downright weirdness (Meme's father turns into a pig? Does he really?) and it ends up missing the mark by some margin, though the intention was sound.

It's a real shame, as this should have been a much better book than it was. It still managed to be more enjoyable than a lot of professionally-published books I've read, but overall it just seemed like a first or second draft. Better luck next time!



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