The Strange Death of Sullivan Chance, by Thierry Maugenest

The Strange Death of Sullivan ChanceThis book seemed like a super slam dunk for me. The title is intriguing and the description, which talked of a dude going on an Amazing-Race-style trip around the world, had me hooked. The conceit of the story, that we already know that this Chance fellow is dead and we’re going back to find out why and how it happened, is one of my favorites. But even with all that going for it, the book just fell flat for me.

It started off well enough. The book is styled like an oral history, which I’ve had some decent luck with lately, so I was excited to see how that would go. There are statements from the Hollywood types who helped put the show together and people who grew up with Sullivan in BFE Arizona and various other people who met Sullivan along the way. You find out quickly that Sullivan was chosen to be in a sort of one-man Around the World in Eighty Days TV knockoff, wherein he would circumnavigate the globe with only a valid passport, paid visas, and the clothing on his back (and a camera crew, but who’s counting?). You find out equally quickly that the game is rigged, but Sullivan makes for some compelling TV so whatever. And of course you know that he’s dead, but no one can really agree on whodunnit or why.

So that’s pretty cool! But the oral history conceit falls apart pretty quickly as the author introduces excerpts from books written about Sullivan’s journey, most of which are basically novelizations of the show with varying amounts of extra made-up material about this already made-up story, which is a level of meta that threatens the brain. These excerpts are what really pulled me out of the story as all of the novelization versions completely ignore the fact that Sullivan is followed by a camera crew for most of his journey and also purport to know the inner workings of Sullivan Chance, and they account for the bulk of what we learn about Sullivan and the show and I just can’t even. I get that that’s probably on purpose and that there are several levels of criticism inherent in this book, but it just bothered the heck out of me. An oral history, I could have done, or a novel about this odd TV show, but not a mix of the two, apparently.

The other thing that bothered the heck out of me was the ending, which is so completely at odds with the rest of the novel that my eyes literally (second definition) (read: figuratively) rolled out of my head and down a hallway à la Minority Report. Seriously, I had no idea what was going on and then I totally knew what was going on and I spent those last chapters hoping I would find myself pleasantly surprised at a different ending but it was not to be. It doesn’t make sense, it’s too easy, and it has none of the savvy criticism of the rest of the book. I am not happy with Maugenest’s editor, is what I am saying.

But still, it’s got a great premise and some decent writing, and if you just don’t read the end it’s a fascinating view into the world of competition television and instant celebrity, and maybe now that you know about the end it won’t upset you so much? I don’t know. This is one of those books that I want to send back to be rewritten as the book I wanted it to be, which is probably something like Lost and Found so maybe I should just go read that again?

Recommendation: For readers intrigued by reality TV, but not people who want to read about a journey around the world, because there’s very little of that.

Rating: 6/10

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