Thursday, October 19, 2006

Michael Allen: and why Lisa's Dad got to be famous

Reviewed by: Leopold McGinnis

I have no idea whether Leopold knows Michael. Either personally or Biblically.

Book located at:
£9.99 (~$25 Cdn) or FREE! (you decide)

It’s ‘cause of AIDS. In case you were wondering. Or, rather, it’s because Lisa’s dad agrees to participate in a ‘reality’ TV show where he has to convince a woman to sleep with him, unprotected.

This isn’t really giving anything away because the book is more about the making of this TV show, Harry the man with AIDS, than about Lisa at all. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Lisa is little more than a literary contrivance to create the title and motivation for Harry, than and actual character in the book. Actually, I think the book might have been better and more appropriately titled as Harry the man with AIDS. The existing title is a bit contrived and who is Lisa? Who is Lisa’s Dad? Why should I care why he got famous? But you say ‘Harry the Man with AIDS’ and that gets my attention! This would also create an interesting tension in the reader who picks up the book out of morbid fascination only to find out they’ve fallen for the type of shock marketing the book parodies.

But enough about the title. How and why Lisa’s Dad got to be Famous (which shall hereafter be known as Lisa’s Dad) essentially follows Harry, an everyman carpenter who, soon after finding himself diagnosed as HIV positive, is approached by a rather unscrupulous TV exec eager to sign Harry up to star in his new reality TV show – Harry, the Man with AIDS. Harry, being a bit of an easy going simpleton (almost too easy and simple to be believable at some points) agrees. But only so the money can go to his disabled daughter who he hasn’t seen in years.

The rest of the story involves Harry going through the behind the scenes motions of finding someone willing to sleep with him and dealing with sleazy producers and media who’ll pull anything to get ‘interesting’ reality. Throughout all of this, Lisa’s Dad doles out a fair share of satire on Rupert Murdoch style entertainment in contemporary culture and is a recommended read on that almost alone.

Lisa’s Dad isn’t groundbreaking literature by any stretch, but it’s right in all the right places. And in a world full of books stuffed to the brim with boring pomposity, Lisa’s Dad is like a breath of fresh air in a cold, dark crypt. First and most importantly, this book is entertaining. Sadly, too few books of literature these days come close to achieving this golden rule of lit. But no argument can be made that Lisa’s Dad does not satisfy this key aspect. The story moves quickly, is too short to ever get boring, avoids cliché, has an interesting, contemporary and modern-day concept (though I wouldn’t go as far as to call it unique). Overall, it’s just well-roundedly entertaining. And secondly, it fulfills the other golden rule: heart.

Michael Allen makes his book relevant to the reader. It’s coverage of a contemporary phenomenon in contemporary settings, with familiar-yet-unique characters makes it easy to relate to. It’s not your typical glut of literary self-absorption. Furthermore, the book has a purpose. Allen seeks to satirize and examine the phenomenon of reality TV – particularly taking to its extremes a form of entertainment most people don’t spend much time thinking about. Literature is good for this sort of analysis – examining and discussing our world without boring us like a textbook, making it relate. Allen manages this quite well. Though I wanted a bit more.

While Allen makes a lot of good points about the ‘hidden’ truths about this form of entertainment, I felt that, in the end, he kind of pulled punches. The book doesn’t touch much upon why this form of entertainment is so popular, or what it says about the culture that produces and consumes it. We see a bit of the sleazy underbelly of the typical goings on in production (all the shady legal mumbo jumbo), but the voyeuristic nature of this sort of programming, the negative aspects of the sort of media domination involved (ie, the fact that the show that airs the program is owned by the same company that runs the major newspaper that promotes the program, etc…, etc…), are ignored.

In the end everyone gets off scot free. I won’t go into details to keep from spoilers, but the worst that happens is we get a hint that maybe the producer of this show, who makes lots of money, is really not satisfied, but in fact a lonely man. Falls a bit too close to commercial pap for my tastes, but was still, overall, well done.

There are a few other things that don’t quite sit right, including the fact that the main character being so easy going. We’re supposed to believe that he’d go through all this hell, do anything for his daughter and yet wholeheartedly agrees to never see her again at his ex-wife’s suggestion because it might ‘confuse her.’ A few parts of this novel come off as convenient narrative devices before being solidly believable. Harry’s cluelessness is fun and a convenient trick for getting the story across, but sometimes Harry says ‘but I don’t know about that stuff’ at too many things, like TV, Newspapers, anything Michael Allen feels the need he has to explain. Additionally, because Harry’s so simple, it’s hard to understand what the woman sees in him exactly. I wouldn’t say it’s unbelievable, but does bring up the question.

The writing in Lisa’s Dad is incredibly tight. I really admire writers who can put together a story very succinctly and Michael Allen’s is a master at it. I’m am far from a tight writer. I’d say this is a strength for Allen and the book clips along at its own, quick pace. But if you like flowery prose, or stopping along the road for asides, to peruse the scenery, you aren’t going to find much (or any) of that here.

Michael Allen is a bit of a celebrity in the independent publishing circuit. He had several books published big name presses in the 60s and 70s before taking a decade long break. When he came back he found that there was little interest in his work amongst the literary bureaucrats. As he says in an interview at the back of the book, which is arguably one of the most interesting parts of the book – at least from my perspective – they weren’t interested in a writer who wouldn’t stick to a genre or who too old to be hep anymore. So Michael Allen started up Kingsfield publications and has been publishing himself since.

There’s a terrible pall against self-publishing, but us independent publishers are lucky to have someone like Allen in the game. Not only does he show that independent publishing is not just the realm of people who ‘can’t get published otherwise’, but also, with novel’s as craftily written as Lisa’s Dad, he’s surely raising the public’s perception, support and belief in independent writing. Certainly, How and While Lisa’s Dad Got to be Famous is better than a long list of best-sellers lining the shelves or award lists these days.

I’d recommend How and Why Lisa’s Dad got to be Famous to almost anyone. It’s fun, interesting and fairly novel. I’d readily read another book of Mr. Allen’s and, best of all, if you’re hard up for cash, or have extra time at work, you can read the entirety of Lisa’s Dad online at the above address for free! Now that’s novel! With generousity like that, it’s easy to understand How and Why Michael Allen (as Grumpy Old Bookman) Got to be Famous.

1 comment:

SAND STORM said...

This just came up at Metaxucafe. I read and reviewed Lisa's Dad on Amazon it is a great read. I will forward this to GOB.

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