In this year’s season finale of Doctor Who, a rupture in time and space caused a lot of anachronistic events to occur simultaneously, the briefest of which was the appearance by Charles Dickens on a morning television show talking about his latest Christmas special project. While this featured a famous author as a science fiction character (which I explored in a recent article) it also briefly touched on the notion of the sensibilities of a long-dead author being applied to a contemporary audience. If the nature of speculative fiction is to explore other dimensions of how stories are told, then Ben Greenman delivers an astounding work of speculative fiction with the short story collection Celebrity Chekhov.
While this book could easily be classified as a mash-up in the same vein as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the content of Celebrity Chekhov is not necessarily a farce or a spoof. While the aforementioned books from Quirk Classics are excessively entertaining, they are, as the name of their publisher suggests, quirky. Celebrity Chekhov isn’t exactly quirky because it actually takes its conceit fairly seriously. If Chekhov was alive today (somehow) and his prose sensibilities were applied to contemporary celebrities, what would the stories look like?
In the story “The Darling” instead of the protagonist being a provincial woman living alone, she is Nicole Kidman, who looks something like the Nicole Kidman we are familiar with. As in the original story, Nicole Kidman here has a series of lovers, Tom Cruise, Keith Urban, etc. And as in the Chekhov story, all of her lovers eventually die. Instead of the messy Hollywood breakups that pervade the actual affairs of Nicole Kidman, an Anton Chekhov-style death is put in its place, because the only thing more permanent than a break-up is death. By having Tom Cruise and Keith Urban die and leave poor Nicole Kidman alone, one could argue that the emotional impact for the reader is slightly more relatable than the original Chekhov text. (And before you might cry “blasphemy!”, consider that Shakespeare has been transported to modern times, too.) Greenman isn’t actually making fun of Chekhov, and though the stories are kind of funny, they’re not necessarily making fun of these people either. Instead, what’s being illuminated is how we think about the images of people instead of who they really are.
The story “Hush” deals with Eminem trying to write a rap. Here, at the end of the story he bemoans his plight as a tortured artist:
“I am so exhausted that I am afraid I won’t sleep,” he says as he gets into bed. “My work exhausts the soul even more than the body. I had better take a pill. God knows, I’d like to one day be done with this. To write to make a release date that someone else has set? It is awful.”
He sleeps till twelve or one o’clock in the day, sleeps a sound, healthy sleep. How well he would sleep, what dreams he would have, if he could somehow entrust others with the writing of his albums!
While the above might strike reader as funny, the speculation of Chekhov writing about Eminem is actually more tragically ironic than it is humorous. The reason why the reader might engage with the Chekhov pastiche applied to Eminem is for some of us, we imagine the ghost of Chekhov following Eminem around his life and immediately finding something in common with the poets of old. The content of Eminem’s art is hardly what’s relevant here, what is relevant is Eminem is hardly speaking the way he would speak in real life, hence the irony. So instead of Chekhov’s prose style being pulled forward in time, Eminem has been pulled backwards. And it is right here, in this pocket universe that the majority of these stories exist. The plots of the stories aren’t necessarily speculative fiction, but the fabric of the prose certainly is. The imagination actually has to do a lot of acrobatics to get this kind of thing to work.
However, these acrobatics feel easy, because the juxtaposition is ironically funny first, and tragic second. The subject matter alone isn’t the only thing that makes these texts tragic. Instead, it’s the fact that we’re recognizing a simulacrum of a persona inside of an anachronistic text and STILL are somehow emotionally moved. The best example of this occurs in “A Classical Student” which features Lindsay Lohan as a student who is being pushed and prodded in all sorts of directions that she feels she has little control of. A contemporary reader with no knowledge of Chekhov might have a hard time relating to the emotional plight of this person. Then again, they might not. Greenman’s assertion here isn’t so much that by making the protagonist into Lindsay Lohan that you’ll “get” the story more, but instead that “Lindsay Lohan” is just a thing that you can use and insert into any kind of time period or prose style.
Speculative fiction should not only push the boundaries of what is possible in the various dimensions of existence, but also what is possible within the boundaries of creative expression itself. In this way, Celebrity Chekhov is no laughing matter, but actually quite profound. However, you’ll probably laugh out loud anyway.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.