In our time, we are constantly inundated with images of celebrities. They are in our newspapers, on our televisions, advertisements, billboards, etc, etc. These imagines are craved, desired and sought after by millions. While it is possible that the demand for celebrity gossip represents voyeuristic impulses or simple escapism we cannot overlook that celebrities also embody the great lie which American society maintains itself on—that anyone can make it to the top, to become rich. Though I may overstate the case to some degree, it seems that anyone with a modicum of talent be it theatrical, musical or otherwise (and lots who don’t have any) fanaticize about achieving success in Hollywood. They want to make it there and believe that this is the fulfillment of the American promise and will constitute the ecstatic fruition of their dreams. But what happens when the realization turns out to be vacant of meaning?
This question serves as the thematic foundation of award winning author, Michael Loyd Gray’s new novel, Not Famous Anymore. In it, Gray traces actor Elliott Adrian’s inverted American path—from stardom to obscurity—and the emotional quest that goes along with it as he seeks to find meaning within his seemingly meaningless life. After years in the spotlight, Elliott concludes he has had enough—enough of the parties, enough of the drinking, enough of the shallow sex, enough of the Hollywood lifestyle. Lacking fulfillment and disillusioned in Hollywood, Elliott sets off first to rehab and then through a series of exotic excursions from the shores of Mexico to the deserts of Arizona and finally to his hometown, the tiny hamlet of Argus, Illinois. The whole time, Elliott attempts to dodge the frantic and persistent efforts of the press to locate him and reassert his presence in the limelight despite his wishes to remain in obscurity and seek definition and significance to his increasingly complicated existence. As he edges closer to his roots he begins to find that meaning cannot be found in the ego-centric existence he has lived thus far; but, that it involves psychologically extending himself outward and making himself vulnerable. This is something which requires an agonizing connection with the world and most especially the people around him. This proves to be a thorny task for Elliot because it inevitably involves a reckoning with the tragic death of his parents when he was a child, his accidental maiming of his only brother and the discovery he has a collage aged daughter he has never met. These are precisely the type of painful and raw disturbances he has taken care to suppress through alcohol, fornication and emotional dearth.
In this book, Gray offers an intriguing exploration into the theme of the vacancy and superficiality of celebrity by sketching its implications out on one individual. This produces a profound and multifaceted portrait for his protagonist. Not only does Elliot express genuinely human concerns like the struggle for recognition and acceptance—points which are skillfully revealed by Gray’s intimate, sometimes confessional first person narrative—he also is capable of learning that the rest of the world does as well. Though as a society might strive for superficiality and believe it is the answer, in the end it is not. The jarring juxtaposition of the two worlds Gray presents—of Hollywood and the world of the rest of us—compels the reader, along with the protagonist, to consider how we ourselves constitute value, self-worth and are affirmed. This exploration is at times acrid, humane, witty, and comical. It is a melee of emotion which is furthermore held together by a sophisticated and compelling sense of plot development that makes the reader want to read on. It is as if the pages flip themselves.
However, the book falls a bit short of developing its theme into the wider social critique it seems designed for. The novel is peppered with social and political attacks from a decidedly left leaning position which primarily manifest themselves as awkward asides by the narrator/protagonist. Although these attacks are impassioned and admittedly funny in locations, they tend to lack serious exposition. Nevertheless, as an overall detraction it is, at most, a minor one.
At the conclusion of Not Famous Anymore, the reader emerges with a chance to re-evaluate what is, and by extension what is not important in life. Stylistically supported by the simple prose, sentence construction and straight forward narration of the book, Gray seems to indicate that most everything we want (or perhaps more precisely, everything we think we want) is superfluous and that the true moments of clarity exist and can be discovered outside of the nonsense we’re so accustomed to. By dissecting the psychological anatomy of actor and once Hollywood darling, Elliott Adrian, Gray allows us to, in turn, dissect ourselves.