Celebrity Chekhov

Ben Greenman’s Celebrity Chekhov is a collection of eighteen of Anton Chekhov’s stories reimagined with contemporary celebrities as the protagonists.  Though I usually avoid such books where the original text is reworked to fit contemporary trends (i.e., Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), I’m a pop culture junkie and was curious to see how this book would work.

The stories feature the likes of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and the judges of American Idol.  Sometimes the stories worked. I got a good chuckle out of “The Darling,” featuring Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, Keith Urban. After Nicole is twice-widowed, she begins an affair with Brad Pitt.  Greenman gives Pitt a good-natured ribbing in this story:

[Brad Pitt] was married and had a number of small children–sometimes he said three, sometimes he rolled his eyes and said that three was just an approximation, and that the actual total might be six or seven.

Later in the story, Greenman pokes fun at self-indulgent celebrities-turned-activists. In this case, he again jokes about Brad Pitt, who in real life is known for architecture-related humanitarian causes like rebuilding homes in New Orleans. In this scene, Pitt scolds Kidman for butting into a conversation he’s having with his fellow activist friends:

“I’ve asked you before not to talk about what you don’t understand. When we actors who enjoy architecture and activism are talking among ourselves, please don’t put your word in. It’s really too much.”

I thought “The Darling” worked because it had the right amount of humor, and the celebrities chosen were a good match.

Other stories weren’t quite as successful.  “A Lady’s Story” featured Justin Timerlake and Britney Spears, with Britney as narrator. A sample of that story:

In Los Angeles we were more vividly conscious of the wall that stood between us. I had put songs in the chart, and at that time he had not, though he aspired to do so…There is no wall that cannot be broken through, but the heroes  of the modern romance, so far as I know them, are too timid, spiritless, lazy and oversensitive, and are too ready to resign themselves to the thought that they are doomed to failure, that personal life has disappointed them; instead of struggling they merely criticize, calling the world vulgar and forgetting that their criticism passes little by little into vulgarity.

Full disclosure: I’m a Britney Spears fan. I love Brit, I’ve paid lots of money to see her in concert *cough*three times*cough*, and quite frankly, I can’t wait to hear her new album when it’s released in March. (Disturbing, I know.) That being said, I know she’s not exactly the brightest crayon in the box. I could not imagine her in this story, speaking those words. It’s just not plausible. At all.

Although some of the stories were funny, more often than not I found myself put off by book.  I thought a couple of the stories were mean-spirited, but the final straw came when I read “A Classical Student,” featuring Lindsay Lohan. In the story, Lindsay messes up in an audition. When her mother finds out, she berates her:

“It’s not you who should be miserable, but me. I’m miserable. I’ve finally had enough. This is the last straw. I have been taking you to auditions since you were a little girl. I’ve broken my back for you. This is a role that shuold be a breeze to get. Why can’t you just try harder? … She ought to have been beaten, that’s what it is!” The mother shook her fist at her daughters. “You want a flogging, but I haven’t the strength. They told me years ago when she was little, ‘Whip her, whip her!” I didn’t heed them, and now I am suffering for it.”

Now, anyone who follows pop culture knows how disgusting Lindsay’s parents are. They truly are horrible people who frequently divulge way too much of Lindsay’s life to the media, and I think of Dina Lohan as the enabling stage mother from hell.

But let’s hold that thought for a moment. In his introduction, Greenman writes:

[W]e can perhaps find analogues for these characters in Chekhov’s stories–and wonder, perchance, what would happen if his original characters were replaced by these new characters, whose travails hit so much closer to home for use…It should be specified–stressed, even–that the famous personages transplanted into these pages are in no way intended to reflect the actual lives of the actual [celebrities] whose names they share. No celebrities were harmed in the making of this book.

Really? The whole reason this book works–when it works–is because people are able to make connections and see actual pop culture reflected in the writing. In “A Classical Student,” Dina Lohan then proceeds to whore Lindsay out to her houseguest, Jesse James.  At which point I winced and actually said aloud, “Ooooh, crossed the line. Low blow.” I was seriously pissed off.

When you write about Lindsay Lohan breaking at the hands of her mother, it’s neither funny nor witty.  When you write about the family voting to “send her into the business,” it’s not some kind of satirical “analogue” meant to make the reader connect to Chekhov’s original characters.  It’s just another example of a troubled young woman whose narrative is being manipulated and exploited, and it brought to mind the words of another celebrity:

“A Classical Student” was incredibly problematic for me, so much that it tainted the rest of the book (a book that I was already starting to feel ambivalent about by the time I reached that story, might I add).  Even though I enjoyed a couple of the stories, none of them were strong enough to make me look the other way once I read about Lindsay.

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One comment

  1. Jeanne

    This sounds intense if you get both sides, but my guess would be that a lot of people who get the celebrity stuff wouldn’t get the Chekhov side, and many of those who get the Chekhov side wouldn’t understand the celebrity stuff.

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