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A Great Big Shining Star, By Niall Griffiths
This novel offers a bleak take on our appetite for celebrity and the new face of fame
Jonathan Gibbs reviews books for The Independent and elsewhere. His novel Randall, about the contemporary art world and the fate of the YBAs, is published by Galley Beggar Press. He blogs on this aspect of his writing at tinycamels.wordpress.com
Friday 15 February 2013
We might not quite live in the future Warhol predicted, where everyone is famous for 15 minutes, but certainly the nature of fame is changing. As reality TV shows and print and online scandal sheets demand ever more celebrities, it seems to be undergoing a process of hyperinflation. The word "celebrity" seems to be detaching itself from the mothership of fame to become a near-synonym of the lesser "personality".
The teenage heroine of Niall Griffiths's new novel is one of those whose consumption of Closer, Grazia and the rest builds a lust for access to that world that comes to seem almost like a sense of entitlement. Gracie Allcock is pretty enough, but with a nose job, then a boob job, why shouldn't she have what Katie Price has, or at least Jodie Marsh?
The book opens with a gruesome description of a rhinoplasty ("The spike was removed and replaced with a spatula-thing… another masked man took up a 3 lb hammer") that neatly prefigures Gracie's true entry into celebrity. This comes when her agent despatches her to a particular nightclub, on a particular night, where she is "harvested" and then "roasted" by a trio of Premiership footballers. Readers unfamiliar with these terms may wish to look them up on urbandictonary.com. Or they may not.
Mobile-phone footage of the incident ends up on YouTube, and the celebrity machine kicks into action: tabloid exposure, photo-shoots, revenge interview with ex-boyfriend, hanging out with pop stars. In truth, there is not much in the Gracie's story that is revelatory, or even really compelling. There is little of the insight to the "entertainment" treadmill that Andrew O'Hagan showed in his novel Personality (based on the life of Scottish child star Lena Zavaroni) but then celebrities don't really have to "entertain" any more, just get on with their miserable lives and be papped while doing it.
To be fair, Griffiths is less interested in the experience of celebrity from the inside than in the mindset of the people who lap it up. This is where the second narrative voice comes in, that of 42-year-old Kurt, failed father and caretaker at the local primary school. He remembers Gracie when she was an innocent eight-year-old, and he watches her progress with a horror that doesn't preclude him drunkenly masturbating to "her" video clip.
It is his apocalyptic rages at the iniquity of humankind in general, and himself in particular, together with his lyrical absorption in the natural world – of frogspawn, cuckoo spit, a dragonfly drying its wings after emerging from its nymph: "dusk-light in the lacework, twilight in the tracery, the abdomen long and thin and striped yellow and black like a racked wasp" – that carry the book beyond being the bleakest of jeremiads. Griffiths's incantatory style has always been his strongest card, and it is put to good use, but it's a shame that the ending seems equally familiar from his previous books.
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