Featured Reviews, VOLUME 2

Featured: ANONYMOUS CELEBRITY by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão [Vol. 2, #49]

“My Fame is Still Being Kept From Me”

A Review of
Anonymous Celebrity: A Novel.
Ignácio de Loyola Brandão.

Reviewed by Joshua Neds-Fox.

Anonymous Celebrity: A Novel.
Ignácio de Loyola Brandão.
Paperback: Dalkey Archive Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Anonymous Celebrity - BrandaoA popular and political writer, relatively well-known in Brazil, Ignácio de Loyola Brandão has been only sparsely translated into English. Dalkey Archive Press — named after the comic-apocalyptic Flann O’Brien novel — is reissuing some of his work, like Brasilia Prizewinner Zero (initially banned in Brazil), and commissioning new  translations of others, including this difficult little novel.

Set in an unnamed television studio in São Paulo, Anonymous Celebrity tells the story of, well, an anonymous celebrity: a stand-in for an absurdly famous Lead Actor (referred to as “LA”) in a Brazilian soap opera, used by the studio to make appearances in his place when LA is too sick or  substance-riddled to do so himself. Cloistered in Dressing Room 101 (“surrounded by the books and notebooks containing the details of my grand design” p.10), the narrator relates aspects of his life and his approach to life in short, titled vignettes.  His central concern is to achieve fame in
his own right, not as a doppelganger for the already-famous. “What breaks my heart, what leaves me sleepless, is that my fame is still being kept from me.” (p.10) To this end, he employs legions of consultants — an Image Consultant, a Networking with Other Famous People Consultant, a Bruising Declarations Consultant, a Consultant on Personal Well-Being — and updates a library of manuals and notebooks — The Manual of Celebrity Behavior, Manual of Media Necessities, The Notebook of Cruelties, Manual of the Anonymous. He’s portrayed alternately as either a sort of pitiable hoarder — surrounded by the detritus of his obsession, constantly taking notes, reviewing fashions, rehearsing Bruising Declarations, spewing venom at the
already-famous — or an untouchable Star, shocking the media with his profligate scandals. “Without the media… we’re nothing,” (p. 14) he asserts, and much of the novel concerns his efforts at building a meticulously constructed persona for the media. We’re left wondering how much is real and how much is entirely in his head.

I should take a moment to point out that this is a timely concern. We are obsessed with image.  We’re fast approaching the point as a culture where we allow media to define us completely, not just culturally but as individual personalities. An interesting episode midway through the novel, concerning a dolly crane in the television studio that is purported to have been used by Kurosawa and hence has become a tourist attraction, illustrates the point. The so-called ‘Kurosawa crane’ had never actually been out of the studio. The story had been completely invented, and the invented story animated the inanimate, to the point of worship.  If this novel is any indication, Brazil may be even farther down this road than North America.  A novelist willing to tackle the issue is (potentially) a prophetic voice calling in the wilderness.

Brandão, with Anonymous Celebrity, wants to be that novelist, to expose the vacuity of our obession with fame. Shot through with laundry lists of trends, buzzwords, dead actresses, the sheer volume of shallow obsession reflected in the novel is meant to wake the reader to the meaninglessness of it all. We see the narrator involved in the most inane concerns, revolving entirely around the construction and maintenance of his image. Interspersed “Rescuing the Anonymous” profiles — little documentary passages, highlighting some uncredited extra in an otherwise famous photo or film — labor to hammer the point home. But the sheer callousness of the novel works against its impact. The narrator, as he is presented in the later third of the book, is fairly obviously meant to be a sympathetic character. But his action throughout the bulk of the novel is so over-the-top awful, it’s
hard to believe he’s real. There’s a strongly prurient streak, completely secondary and extraneous to the main story — almost grafted on — that places *Anonymous Celebrity* squarely in the line of popular vs. political fiction.  These interludes are meant to represent a real life which the narrator can roundly reject in favor of his self-constructed identity, but they’re so hyper-sexualized they feel anything but real. There’s also a failure of story: Brandão sets up some pretty cut-and-dried narrative mysteries and then neglects to fully or satisfactorily address them in the end, even though the novel’s end is patently designed to do just that. Instead, he introduces a few more ‘real life’ characters who seem anything but, and engages them in subplots and dialog that are silly at best and ham-handed at worst.

Some of my distaste for this novel may possibly be explained by the difficulty of reading in translation. I have neither the cultural understanding nor the luxury of the native language to cushion the blow of the stilted, humid prose. But I think the novel fails of its own accord. It’s disjointed — hundreds of one-to-two page ‘chapters,’ never relating to each other, some in larger text sizes or slightly different fonts but without any real thematic design — in a way that doesn’t successfully serve to reflect the theme. It’s distractingly and unnecessarily sexual. Although the conceit of the novel turns entirely on the revelation of the protagonist as he really is — instead of as he presents himself — Brandão mishandles this revelation and fails to sufficiently uncover the narrator. In the end, it pretends to a gravitas that it doesn’t achieve or earn.

Which is ironic, really, because that’s a pretty good summary of the underlying problem with our celebrity obsession — we grasp at a significance that’s neither ours, nor really there in the first place. It’s unfortunate that, as best as I can tell, it wasn’t intentional.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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