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Friday, March 5, 2010

How I Became a Famous Novelist

Steve Hely deserves kudos for doing something I've long considered extremely difficult. He has written a novel which incorporates quite a lot of our present-day technological and cultural touchstones without (too often) slipping into ridiculousness. How I Became a Famous Novelist is the first novel I've read that was recognizable to a person of my generation. That's a long-winded way of saying that the book references reality-television, gmail, Netflix and a whole host of other contemporary ephemera. Some of this goes to far (I question the wisdom of name-checking Mario Batali, of all people) but Hely is to be commended for incorporating real life into his book.

The book itself is an oddity, almost admirably slight. It seems to be making a case for earnestness in fiction, and against the stuffiness that pervades so-called "literary" works. The narrator of the book is one Pete Tarslaw, a pathetic twenty-something still reeling from the dual tragedies of college graduation and breaking up with his college girlfriend, Polly. He's dangerously ignoring the basic rules of diet and hygiene and spending his days writing people's application essays for money. After Polly e-mails to let him know she's getting married (his first reaction is to make fun of her e-mail address, pollypizzazz@gmail.com) Pete decides that he needs to be the more successful of the two by the time the wedding rolls around.

The title tells you how he plans to do it; by writing a best-selling novel. Inspiration strikes when he realizes that the mega-selling authors, especially the ones whose books are read by smart-cure girls on subway cars, are basically full of shit. In several funny scenes Tarslaw reads through a satirical New York Times bestseller's list and watches one of his new role models interviewed glowingly on the news. A large part of the fun is trying to figure out who Hely is taking shots at in these passages. Tom Clancy and Dan Brown are clearly being mocked, as are to differing extents, James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, Jonathan Safron Foer, and a whole host of literary authors.

Tarslaw aims for literary pretension, but of the easily digestible sort. He comes up with many rules for writing while observing the people buying books in a Borders. For example, most readers are solitary types, so obviously clubs and secret societies appeal to them. Throw in some exotic locations, some sage elderly people, whirlwind romance, and fluff it up with unnecessary verbiage and you have a bestseller.

Tarslaw's creation is the hilariously plausible-sounding The Tornado Ashes Club, about a man on the run from the law with his grandmother, who wants to throw her old lover's ashes into a tornado.

Hely provides several passages from the Tornado Ashes Club at the start of many chapters, and it seems clear that he is possibly talented enough to have taken his own character's path to notoriety. If so, his rejection of such chicanery is a testament to him. How I Became a Famous Novelist is a breezy read, a fact which belies its forceful statement on the way novels should be written. It gets 7.6 out of 10.

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