by Ben Greenman
(October 2010, $13.99, 205 pages)
Anton Chekhov meets the twenty-first century in Ben Greenman’s latest novel, Celebrity Chekhov, in which Greenman rewrites a selection of the master Russian storyteller’s works with modern day celebrities in place of the original characters.
The shift in rhetoric may be easier for humour readers to stomach than students of Russian literature. Chekhov’s romantic, classical picture of Russian life during the industrial revolution and pre-Communist revolution takes a back seat to current Hollywood headlines. The plots of the twenty reworked stories, which include “An Enigmatic Nature,” “Death of a Government Clerk,” “The Darling,” and “A Classical Student,” are the same, but Greenman’s contemporary symbols encompass a world of difference.
For example, in Celebrity’s opening story, “Tall and Short,” based on Chekhov’s “Fat and Thin.” The original story portrays a pair of childhood friends all grown up and, by way of the fat friend becoming a privy councillor, examines the fear capable of being instilled by Russian elites. Less politics are tied to Greenman’s “Tall and Short,” which replaces Fat and Thin with Paris Hilton (Tall) and Nicole Richie (Short) a few years after falling out of BFF-ship. I suppose the looming elitist comment is personified in Paris, the more successful of the two, but the story loses Chekhov’s intent.
Chekhov’s “A Transgression” is a perfect fit for Greenman’s take on David Letterman’s life. The story depicts a practical joke played on a rich socialite by his angry maid, who gets back at him by leaving a baby on his doorstep and leading him to believe it is the product of an affair. He jumps through the hoop, and the rich man/David Letterman fesses up to his wife about an illegitimate child he does not have, and an affair he did. Although “A Transgression” is a quirky anecdote, it is muddled by a Letterman we see acting out of character. He mopes, worries, and shows a soul, which is hard to imagine in the egotistical late night king. The Letterman character seems like it could be any cheating celeb.
The same feeling comes in “Bad Weather,” which focuses on Tiger Woods’ recent infidelities. The story is consuming - big names and Chekhov style draw you in - but Tiger is not himself. It’s almost like a Mad Magazine interpretation of the stars: inflated and satirised to a point of absurdity, where it’s hard to find any reason for reading them at all.
Greenman gets his impressions right at the end of Celebrity in an adaptation of a Chekhov trilogy, consisting of “The Man In A Case,” “Gooseberries,” and “About Love.” Here, Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson converse about tragic love stories in a truly cinematic way. The anecdotes are witty and funny and, most importantly, when you imagine the dialogue in their voices, their renowned personalities fit the roles. “The Man In A Case” even makes Jon Lovitz look like the paranoid shut-in we all think he is, but tastefully of course.
Greenman obviously brings classicism into the new millennium in Celebrity Chekhov and shows how story archetypes are recycled everywhere in literature. But it might be too far out for purists, who value Chekhov’s perception of turn of the century Russian society - symbols much more inspirational than flashy Hollywood gossip. However, to Greenman’s credit, there are a few smirk inducing scenes that show how certain celebrities actually do match-up with some Chekhovian characters. For a Hollywood obsessed gossip queen looking for an unsurprising reiteration of the past year‘s biggest scandals, this book is perfect.
- John Coleman