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

Lost and Found, by Carolyn Parkhurst

Lost and FoundI really enjoyed Parkhurst’s The Dogs of Babel when I read it a few months ago, and so I was excited to read her second book for my book club this month. But as it sometimes happens, I completely forgot when my book club was supposed to be meeting and only managed to get the book from the library a few days in advance. Oops! I was out and about basically the entire time in between getting the book and talking about it, but thankfully this is a quick and fun read so I managed to finish it up with, like, twenty hours to spare!

I was basically sold on this book when I heard it was based on The Amazing Race, which I watched religiously many many years ago and still will tune into an episode of here and there. There’s something about running around the world and solving puzzles that appeals to me, and if I led a more telegenic life I might have tried out for the show.

Which, segue, is what this book is totally about — the reality behind reality shows, from picking the most interesting contestants to staging drama and fights to what a terrible idea it is to go on a reality show. I don’t know if Parkhurst did any field research into reality show production, but I would totally believe her take on it!

If you’re not a big fan of reality shows, that’s okay, because the meat of the book is the interactions between the characters who have found themselves running around the world together. The main focus is on the mother-daughter team, whose perfect-for-TV drama is that the daughter birthed a baby without her mother knowing she was pregnant; the ex-gay husband-and-wife team who may not be as ex- as they would like; and a former child star looking to game the reality show to make her comeback. It’s fantastic tabloid fodder, but there’s also a truth to all of these characters and their problems that make them sympathetic, if only to the tiniest degree in some cases.

And did I mention the book was fun? It gets a bit heavy-handed at times, especially with the ex-gay subplot that seemed never to end, but it absolutely makes up for it with the digs at TV culture, the travel-inspiring descriptions of the game locations, and the absurd realities of the game. It’s also thought-provoking, if only in the sense that I have been wondering for the past several days, “Why DID the Howells ever go on that three-hour tour? And bring so many clothes?” Seriously. Seriously.

Recommendation: For fans and also not-fans of reality television, or for people who enjoy parrots?

Rating: 8/10