This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can see the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club click here.
Georges: Stephen, why did you think The Rumpus Book Club would want to read Deus Ex Machina?
Stephen Elliott: The reason I chose Andrew’s book is because he’s the books editor for The Rumpus. I went back and forth, and asked the discussion group to weigh in. I felt that the RBC would be most interested in reading the Rumpus Book Editor’s book. That seemed like a reasonable idea.
Georges: Solely because he’s the Rumpus Books editor?
Stephen Elliott: Yeah. Because I would think the Rumpus Book Club would be more curious about the Book Editor’s book than any other book coming out at the same time.
Andrew Foster Altschul: … and also because you thought it was a good book?
Stephen Elliott: I was conflicted on it. But when I asked the group people did want to read it, solely because he was the books editor. Obviously I wouldn’t have suggested it if I didn’t think it was a good book. But that’s why I thought the RBC would choose it over other good books.
Sean: Andrew, how much of the subject matter dictated the voice of the book?
Andrew Foster Altschul: I think the subject matter dictated the voice to a great extent – though I don’t usually think consciously about things like that when I’m writing. But in this case, because there’s that sense of total surveillance and control (I hope), it felt right to have a kind of creepy, omniscient voice that reader’s wouldn’t quite be able to identify as any particular character’s.
Sean: The voice seems sorta antisepctic, TV like. I was wondering how much of that had to be directed.
Andrew Foster Altschul: Sean – I like the word “antiseptic.” If by “directed” you mean consciously guided/edited, I’d say it was more a question of enhancing something that sort of occurred naturally, on its own. Once I recognized why it was important and useful to the story, I could go back and draw it out a bit more, make it creepier, smarter, more thematically engaged.
Stephen Elliott: Deus Ex Machina had kind of an interesting genesis, journey. Originally it was a short story, right Andrew?
Andrew Foster Altschul: Yes – but not a very short one… about 12,000 words. An editor suggested I turn it into a novel. Of course my first response was, “Fuck you.”
Cruise: I thought Deus Ex Machina was different from the rest of the books we read, but it was a welcome change. It’s good to read something different every now and then.
Andrew Foster Altschul: Glad you liked it, Cruise. What felt most different?
Cruise: The subject matter for starters. Being on an island and about a television show, Deus Ex Machina had more of a fantasy feel then the other books which have been more about normal life.
Mandy Boles: Andrew, I was wondering if you watched the Big Brother live feeds or visited any of the Big Brother/Survivor forums when you were researching the book?
Andrew Foster Altschul: Mandy, I watched a bunch of episodes of several different shows, and then I checked out the live feed for about a minute and a half, because a) it was all I needed to understand what’s happening to us, and b) it made me want to kill myself.
Cruise: Andrew, Are you a fan of Reality TV at all or was the original idea meant as a criticism of Reality TV?
Andrew Foster Altschul: Well, neither, really. To me, Reality TV – which I do think is pretty evil, when you get right down to it – but it’s a symptom of something much eviler and more disturbing than mere television.
Stephen Elliott: What’s it a symptom of?
Andrew Foster Altschul: A symptom of a culture that not only doesn’t mind being lied to but actually insists on it. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the trajectory of Reality TV – if you take “Survivor” as kind of the uber-show — tracks more or less perfectly with the Bush Administration. We’ve come to a point where as a society we discount or punish the people who tell the truth, and reward those who lie to our face.
Cruise: I liked the inclusion of Sarah Palin. Your Palin dialogue was spot on.
Stephen Elliott: That was a coincidence, right? I mean, she didn’t have a realty show of her own when she wrote that?
Andrew Foster Altschul: Palin didn’t have a show, per se… But Sarah Palin is and always has been a walking reality show. Pure dishonesty, pure cutthroat. She embodies the worldview of Reality TV: any behavior is justified if it gets you what you want.
Mandy Boles: It could be a metaphor for politics in general as well…
Cruise: The fact that she now has a reality show proves that point.
Andrew Foster Altschul: Thanks. Glad it rings true. Of course it’s “enhanced Palin”… but when I realized that’s who had to be the “special guest,” I was very very worried. Very high shark-jumping potential there… and I’m sure some readers will feel that way.
Mandy Boles: I watch way too much Reality TV (one of my many personality defects) and I’ve noticed in recent years the participants are trying to shape their “storylines.” I loved that aspect of the book. That the participants readily assume their roles.
Andrew Foster Altschul:That’s the part, I think, that terrifies me the most. Chuck Klosterman wrote about ten years ago, re: The Real World, that the world had basically been reduced to about a dozen RW-style personality types, as everyone chooses a role in real life and adapts their personality to fit. I think we’re down to about 5 now…
Jack W: Andrew, I wonder if you feel that Reality TV might be a dust bowl clouding our perception of, well, reality, and that perhaps years from now, in retrospect, Deus Ex Machina might have a Steinbeckian feel to it?
Andrew Foster Altschul: Well, yes – and I say that not to toot my own horn, it’s just that contemporary life feels much more like that to me than it feels like, say, a Richard Ford novel or some other classically realist narrative. (No offense meant to Richard Ford, of course…)
Stephen Elliott: You visited a porn set to do research for this book. You were looking to get on a reality show set and came to me for help.
Andrew Foster Altschul: Right. When I was writing and researching, I tried every angle and connection I could to get on the set of a reality show, but these productions are unbelievably secretive and lawyered up and basically impregnable. I even had an exec producer of a top show try to hire me for a day as his assistant, just to get me through the door, but he couldn’t make it happen.
It just so happened that Steve had been commissioned to make a pilot for Showtime — a reality show set in the studios of Kink.com, the largest self-contained fetish porn studio in the world. Kink is in the Mission, in SF, so one Saturday morning Steve calls me up at 9:30 and says, “If you can get down here in an hour, you can watch them making the show. And wear all black.”
Georges: I never really found the core of your story, the piece that felt like the genesis from which everything else flowed. Where did you start when you were writing this as a short story and how did you expand it into a novel
Andrew Foster Altschul: As I was writing the book these were just things that happened and felt like they fit into this world I’d made. Gloria, at first, was my idea of a kind of “Bartleby” character – someone who refuses to participate in the rest of the world’s idiocy. But then of course I realized that there was no way she could “really” be that person – it had to be yet another role. No way out, you know?
Cruise: I don’t understand your connection with Reality TV and lies. Sure it’s not “real,” and it’s formulaic; but the same can be said for everything on TV.
Andrew Foster Altschul: Yeah, and for any kind of representative art. But of course most representative art admits that it’s a representation. “Realism” is an -ism. Reality pretends — and maybe even believes — that it’s something else… some kind of unvarnished portrayal of real people. And it uses very sophisticated techniques to enhance the illusion of there being no mediation, no editing, no “representation.” But of course it’s just choosing what story to tell and how to portray people, and then going to great lengths to pretend it hasn’t done anything at all.
Stephen Elliott: I saw, when working on that reality show, that people insisted on having control over the story. They introduced conflicts unnecessarily. My whole idea was just to let the cameras run and capture what I thought was a fascinating work environment.
Who is your favorite character on the island. Do you like these people?
Andrew Foster Altschul: I kind of loved Shaneequio, who starts out as maybe the most “noble” or well-meaning character, but to “stay alive” is forced to inhabit the nastiest of racial stereotypes, beause otherwise he doesn’t fit with what the network wants to portray as the “reality” of a black man.
Georges: Andrew – what do you have against babies?
Andrew Foster Altschul: WTF?
Georges: Haha — I say that sort of tongue in cheek. But there is a recurring theme of infants sort of getting the short-end of the stick — not making it out of the womb, making out but damaged, making it out deformed and dying shortly thereafter…
Andrew Foster Altschul: True. But miscarriages happen. Deformities happen. Really tragic awful unspeakable things happen in all of our lives… but you wouldn’t know it from “Reality TV,” where we’re supposed to find it tragic if someone doesn’t have enough money for their third lip-collagen treatment. And at the same time, something about childbirth and mothering seems to me to be un-distortable. The ultimate reality. It can’t be fucked with since it’s so elemental and raw.
Cruise: But it’s not like “awful unspeakable things” are accurately portrayed on TV anyway. Even the news is sensationalized. TV’s a moronic medium. That’s why I like Reality TV. It, at least, admits it’s stupid.
Andrew Foster Altschul:Does it?
Andrew Foster Altschul: I feel like I’ve had way too many conversations with otherwise intelligent people who insist to me that Reality TV is basically true.
Stephen Elliott: I would say earlier Reality TV is better than what we have now. Certainly the first Real World episodes were way better. I had to research all those shows.
Mandy Boles: Seasons 1-3 of The Real World were actually pretty decent.
Andrew Foster Altschul: They were better, but only because they were a novelty. If you watch them now, you can see perfectly how evil they are. It’s just that we were all bamboozled by a way of making TV that we hadn’t experienced before.
Stephen Elliott: I’ve always felt like reality could turn a corner. The Sopranos and The Wire are soap operas, but they’re better. There’s room for that kind of a jump in reality television.
Andrew Foster Altschul: No, I don’t think so. I think Reality’s goal — it’s DNA, even — is to subvert the relationship between the story and the person watching the story. It paints itself into a corner that way. Anna Karenina is also “a soap opera,” in the sense of the basic assumptions it adheres to about art, representation, and the reader. Reality TV from the get go discards those assumptions and demands that we capital-B BELIEVE it, rather than the lowercase-b of “believing” Anna Karenina. Makes it impossible for it to then back away from that position.
Josh: Characters from Jersey Shore now have book deals. I don’t think Reality TV admits that it is stupid. They think they are important. They are delusional, to some extent.
Stephen Elliott: I think we are going to see really good Reality TV at some point. In fact, I think Reality TV would be 10x better if it just wanted to be. Literally. All it would require would be intent. It’s a potentially rich medium, like oral histories.
Andrew Foster Altschul: Maybe. But it will have to redefine its relationship to the audience in such a way that it will arguably NOT be “Reality TV” anymore but a new genre. The Wire didn’t have to do that, it just had to be better. Andrew: Ah yes, I can see it now: “Oral Histories, the new hit show from NBC.” Right.
Stephen Elliott: The Wire followed The Sopranos. We know Reality TV can be great because there are great documentaries.
Andrew Foster Altschul: Yep, and those documentaries are making hundreds!
Stephen Elliott: Some are in the low four figures.
Cruise: For there to be good Reality TV, it would have to have a really small, niche audience otherwise the cast would become famous and wouldn’t be real anymore.
Andrew Foster Altschul: True.
Stephen Elliott: So then is Deus Ex Machina a mirror? Are we seeing our society at large reflected back on us.
Andrew Foster Altschul: It’s a recursive relationship. We get a very selective view of ourselves reflected back, and then we adjust ourselves to better conform to that view. Bit by bit we confirm the producers’ view of the human race as irretrievably greedy, selfish, spoiled, and disloyal. We are perfecting it.
If you watch TV footage from 50 years ago, or listen to radio from 75 years ago, regular people had no idea what to do when you put a microphone in their face, or a camera. Now we all know exactly what to do. I think we’ve lost some spontaneity — and without spontaneity it’s hard to have authenticity.
Cruise: There was something futuristic about Deus Ex Machina. They way the producers was able to control the stars and the islands climate etc. Was the idea to portray Reality TV a few years from now?
Jenna: I liked that the producer was sad that no one ever spoke of love.
Andrew Foster Altschul: Jenna – me, too. And sad what had to happen for him to even start to articulate that sadness to himself.
Jenna: Totally. And that he thought one way to redeem all of the shenanigans was to force them to say one true thing about love. No matter how long it took.
Jack W: Andrew, do you think that Reality TV is slowly lowering its mirror so that we are inevitably going to be recursive, using Reality TV as the reality we know and understand? That perhaps we cannot move into post-reality(tv) until it is our reality?
Andrew Foster Altschul: Hmm. I dunno. Postreality to me isn’t so much a TV term as it is a critical term. Like, we live in an era in which we mistake “Reality TV” for “reality” – hence, we live in “postreality.”
Sean: It is that whole idea about saying one true thing on TV that sinks us. TV isn’t true.
Andrew Foster Altschul: I disagree. Good TV is often true. Even bad TV. If by “true” we mean it says something authentic about human existence. Even soap operas are true once in a while. But the only truth that “Reality TV” admits or cares about is the “truth” that we are all, deep-down, irredeemably cruel and selfish, that our love of power, control, and money, at the end of the day, will usually overcome our love for other human beings. If you think about “realism” as something that “Reality TV” has tried to do away with, the analogy is that “realism” used to try to teach us empathy, by giving us the ability to see the world through the eyes of others. But “reality” doesn’t teach empathy, it teaches survival, take what you can get, everyone else is the competition, or the enemy.
Sean: You might be right, but only in this context. I remember watching MASH as a kid, and that seemed true… maybe it is my reaction to the belief that we find ourselves out there. not inside. That true/truth can be packaged and sold.
Cruise: I think you should try to get Deus Ex Machina made into a TV show. Then, it could be “meta reality.”
Stephen Elliott: Ha!
So the book isn’t out for more than a month. What’s next?
Andrew Foster Altschul: Working on a new novel, editing an anthology of essays about the lives of artists, finishing up a short story that hopefully will finish the collection.
Oh, and getting married in a few months.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Whoa! Congrats!
Stephen Elliott: I’d say congratulations but marriage is hell.
Andrew Foster Altschul: Steve, you know that how?
Stephen Elliott: Whoops, didn’t mean to press send. 🙂
Georges: Stephen — have you been married?
Isaac Fitzgerald: Steve’s married only to the sea.
Andrew Foster Altschul: Sean, the relationship between “true” and “real” is a lot more complicated than “Reality TV” wants us to admit, don’t you think?
Sean: Definitely. TV seems to want to take perspective away from the viewer. I must add that I have really appreciated your engagement in this dialogue. I think we could have a great chat over a beer (or many).
Jack W: Are there any writers whose work inspired you while you were writing Deus Ex Machina? In general?
Andrew Foster Altschul: Nabokov (always). DF Wallace. Jim Shepard… probably others.
Steve Elliott, of course.
Jack W: Many of the group discussions splintered off into DFW quotes, etc. Glad to see DFW on your list 🙂
Cruise: Other than your editor suggesting it, was there anything about the short story that made you feel like it should be a novel.
Andrew Foster Altschul: Well, the editor kept at me, and convinced me to take some notes, and once I got back into it and started expanding it, I realized that indeed there was enough there to support a longer narrative. I guess the fact that the original story spiralled up to 40-plus pages might have been a tip off…
Georges: I very much enjoyed your book. I took it in a completely different direction, I suppose. Ultimately, for me it was a book about love.
Andrew Foster Altschul: I’m fine with you reading it as a book about love. In fact, I like that a lot.