Veteran Brazilian writer Ignácio de Loyola Brandão expertly lampoons the vapidity of celebrity culture, the tyranny of the photo-op, in his latest novel.
Anonymous Celebrity by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão. Translated from the Portuguese by Nelson H. Vieira. Dalkey Archive Press, 389 pages, $15.95.
Reviewed by Bill Marx
Passionate condemnations of the notion that one is either a glorious celebrity or an abject nobody are routine, particularly among the Beautiful People themselves, who spend a lot of time schizophrenically wallowing in and then disowning their elite status for fans who worship their idols in either guise without reservation.
Thus an expose of the vapidity of fame in the entertainment business, a mocking dagger in the heart of Red Carpet popularity uber alles – no matter how clever or acidic – risks redundancy at best and hypocrisy at worse. Satirizing the metaphysical null point of celebrity introduces the question of a moral yardstick; most contemporary writers back away from the old-fashioned notion of judgment, choosing radical parody over preaching.
Still, despite the ease of its target, Ignácio de Loyola Brandão’s satire of a fragile ego hell bent on reaching stardom turns out to be far more entertaining and thought provoking than one would expect. The author stretches out a thin but ingenious premise over most, though not all, of its pages. Much of “Anonymous Celebrity”’s sardonic kick comes from the monomaniacal riffs Brandão spins on the story’s central paradox: in today’s world the exceptional life is the trite life – terminal self-absorption is an essential requirement for fame and those who revere it.
The nameless protagonist – there are wry hints that his moniker is Ignácio de Loyola Brandão – serves as a genial send-up of a Nabokovian conceit. The guy’s an addled doppelgänger, a wannabe superman (“I’m empty, hollow. A receptacle for trivia. In other words, a man perfectly equipped to live in the modern day.”) filled with resentment that he is a relative unknown, a man-without-buzz-of-his-own. The narrator sits tantalizingly close to the grail of glamor: he’s a stand-in for a huge Brazilian soap star whom he resembles. That means any stellar perks and adoration the second banana receives – TV appearances, autograph requests, lurid mentions in tabloids – are based on his parasitical relationship to the real “Lead Actor.” He is a photo-op by default; his life is shaped by the gales of frustration and hatred generated by permanent flunkydom.
Understandably, the anti-hero yearns to take center stage. He conspires, with the help of a member of the Lead Actor’s entourage, to kill the star and then take his place without anyone noticing the switch. Besides contemplating homicide, the narrator continually meditates on what to do with celebrity once he gets it: his ideas take the form of a wild how-to book aimed at winning and maintaining fame and fortune amid “the oscillations of the market.” “I used to worry obsessively about it,” he writes early on, “If I suddenly became famous, which will of course happen to me sooner or later, it’s virtually assured when one doesn’t have talent, doesn’t have any skills, how is one supposed to act?”
Brandão skillfully lampoons the price of having to keep airbrushing yourself into existence: the anxious narrator supplies chapter headings (“Always Keep Yourself ‘Plugged in,’” “How to Get into Parties Despite Being a Nobody”) worries about supplying the right up-to-the-minute “hip” vocabulary to the media, and hires a team of “essential” consultants to help him project the proper trendy image, a hilarious list that includes expert advisers on lying, baseball caps, autographs, and tribes. He also supplies short elegies for the unlucky unknowns in history, those unidentified or unrecognized people who stand – side-by-side, cheek-to-jowl – with the celebrated in photographs or in books. They are seen as object lessons in failing to escape the shadows.
Are there signs of tortured humanity underneath the narrator’s jaunty if desperate veneer? Brandão suggests, sometimes heavy-handedly, that self-hatred drives the single-minded hunt for fame. The narrator confesses that “No one knows how isolated I feel” and “The only solid fact you can count on is that my life is a fake … Since there’s been no happiness in my life, no pleasure, I hereby cancel it – negate my existence.” The urge to become recognized, argues Brandão, is rooted in desire to be erased. The narrator’s most positive experience with another person is a robust on-again/of-again sexual relationship with Leticia, a woman who pleads with the protagonist to abandon his quest for stardom and come “down to earth.” Fat chance, since the guy’s purpose in life is to ignore the prosaic truth, which is “unbearable” because “it hurts.” The death of the Lead Actor would give him the opportunity to simultaneously jump out of and stay in his own skin.
I mentioned Nabokov earlier, but “Anonymous Celebrity”’s energetic chaser-after-the-high-life, his over-the-top desires conveyed via high-octane language and elaborately jokey fantasies, also reminds me of the manic over-reachers in the dark comedies of Stanley Elkin. But Elkin knew that obsession, once it flips into madness, becomes considerably less compelling, which is why his egomaniacs keep a tight hold on the real. Once “Anonymous Celebrity” suggests that the protagonist may be crazy, that all of his claims are nothing but batty ruminations, the novel runs out of stream, even though it is filled with the names of real life brands and contemporary celebrities. In his earlier books Brandão plays, as he does here, with typeface and line spacing; this time around the various big-little fonts may be signs that the protagonist is nuts.
Despite all of his attempts to give his demented narrator humanity, Brandão ends up ringing variations on a commonplace — the vapidity of celebrity. But the imaginative gusto of his burlesque makes something pretty funny out of nothing.