The Real DealAndrew Foster Altschul's "Deus Ex Machina," set amid a TV show that looks like the love child of "Survivor" and "Lost," explores reality in several senses of the word. Here's an excerpt from the novel, which will be published next week.Andrew Foster Altschul's new novel "Deus Ex Machina" jumps from a platform of reality TV to take on big ideas.
Day One on The Deserted, television’s most venerable unscripted drama, in which ten strangers find themselves in a remote location—no money, no maps, and no clue. Early this morning: a flash of light in the tropical sky, a trail of dark smoke as an airliner plunged into the sea. Soon, the survivors washed up bloody and battered on a tiny island far from civilization. While production assistants and tape loggers cheered them on, the Deserted built a shelter, ransacked the flotsam luggage, took stock of one another. Storm clouds gathered. Sharks circled off the shore. Season 13 had begun.
There’s only one way off the island: a harrowing trek through some of the roughest terrain known to man. These ten competitors will have to learn to work together. No one can tell them what to do. Their fate is theirs to determine. But in the end, only one will be crowned Lord of the Island.
In the production facility—a fifteen-acre parcel on the island’s southeast tip—the crew bustled through their tasks: techs and interns beetling around the control room, story assistants huddling in the back with their iPads, assistant producers barking into headsets. The audio team started their betting pool. The remote camera operators claimed dibs on which players they planned to fuck in the off season. By noon the Deserted were at each others’ throats, an ex-Marine harassing a poet, a corporate lawyer named Candy fending off the advances of an auto mechanic named Stan. Only Gloria, a dental technician, stayed out of trouble, silently gathering wood and ignoring the others’ provocations. It drove the crew crazy.
But the producer, veteran of twelve blockbuster seasons, couldn’t give a shit.
We find him far from the facility, far across the island’s desolate expanses, its lush rainforest and parched salt flats, its wheat-dry savanna and treacherous thickets of quicksand, beyond the ancient ruins and the mangrove swamps and the seething cobra pits, climbing a mountain somewhere in the northern quadrant.
His yoga teacher insists he seek solitude: just wind, sun, the silence of his thoughts; no APs, no dailies, no spreadsheets, no GPS. He stands atop a broad escarpment, the island laid out before him. Squinting, he can just make out the cranes and backhoes busying through the ancient ruins, six miles distant. He can see the cut in the eastern forest where trucks roll through from Beachhead A, laden with materiel from the network ships. But he cannot see the Deserted, not even a plume of smoke from their campfire. It’s an enormous relief.
“Prove it,” Armand had said over the phone, earlier today. “Show network that the well’s not dry. Remember what you’ve accomplished.” Fourteen years ago Armand had discovered the producer hosting a cable home-improvement show, and given him his shot. Now Armand lives in San Miguel de Allende, forced into retirement by the recent coup in Programming, replaced by a twenty-eight-year old MBA transferred from Finance.
“What we’ve accomplished. And remind me what that is?”
“Oh, maybe you’re right,” Armand sighed. “Maybe it’s time for a rest. The inmates are running the asylum. Old soldiers like us have seen our day. Remember Tennyson? A last noble challenge for men who once strove with gods…”
“Ulysses never strove with Boby al-Hajj,” the producer said, referring to the new head of Programming.
Fourteen years ago, Armand showed up on location at The Wrecking Ball with an entourage of clean-cut young men in hand-tailored suits; the producer’s first thought had been that he was being audited. After two months of meetings, mostly held at the wet bar on the roof of Armand’s Brentwood home, they were ready to go to the network. Two years later, the producer had his first Emmy.
“You remember Season One?” he said. “How terrified we were all the time?”
“Well, really—the fashion sense of those people,” Armand said. “I refuse to set foot in Florida ever again.”
“We had no idea what they would say. What they might do. It was a seven-week highwire act,” the producer said, glancing at the first-cut of the morning’s beach sequence. Shots of Candy, the lawyer, stuffing her bra; of Simon, the poet, trying to scribble something on bark. A gang-outreach counselor named Shaneequio beat-boxed from the twisted frame of an airplane seat. “It’s just so predictable now. Every word, every scheme. What ever happened to free will?”
“Free will wreaks havoc with underwriting, as you well know.”
On screen, Walter Bernatelli, the ex-Marine, did one-arm pushups in the sand. A high school math teacher named Alejandra combed her long, shiny hair, staring dreamily toward the horizon—and the producer was startled by a memory of his wife, standing at her easel, her eyes moving past him as though he weren’t there. He closed his eyes until the image receded.
“It’s a comfort, that’s all,” Armand said. “People like to find themselves on television. That’s all they really want. Don’t get philosophical. If it’s the last season, have fun with it. Relax. Make it your monument.”
But if it’s a monument, he thinks, so far it’s a monument to every other season, a closed loop. At least on The Wrecking Ball they’d built things, however ugly and extravagant; they’d had something to show for the effort. What did they have here, except for obsessive fan clubs, a bestselling line of Season Ten action figures, four hundred and eighty-five thousand Facebook friends?
“You like it down there?” he’d said to Armand. In the background he heard a voice calling in Spanish.
“Oh, you know… pretty houses, pretty boys. Frankly the place looks a bit like Disneyland. Sí, si, I’m coming,” he called to someone. “I’m trying to get Liz down for a visit.”
“How is she?” Armand’s daughter used to work at the Burbank office, until the suits grew impatient with her vodka-and-pills habit and nudged her onto disability. Last he’d heard, she was in rehab, having progressed to cocaine and driven a rented Hummer through her ex-boyfriend’s ex-wife’s living room wall.
“She’s learning macramé,” Armand said. “I think we should all learn macramé. I must go to breakfast now,” he’d said. The producer had thought it was nighttime in Mexico. “Señora Carmen gets annoyed when I’m late.” Design got underway eighteen months ago—of thirty-four major construction jobs, only the ancient ruins are unfinished, a few last patches to the microwave relay grid. What labors, what small miracles of coordination, to create this untouched island. Our people span continents, fill warehouses, ride cubicles, carry all manner of handheld scanning devices; invisible frequencies throb with instructions from Shanghai to São Paulo; queries fly sharp as chatter in a monkeyhouse. The Deserted know none of this. They see no evidence of human intervention. They’ll be kept to the island’s southeast corner, far from the production facility, until the ruins are complete, snakepits populated, footprints erased from the island’s every pristine inch.
Pulse pounding, the producer stops on a wide stretch of trail and lets the island’s smells fill his skull: broken rock, eucalyptus, the distant tang of ocean. The wind gives these things a sharpness that makes his fingertips tingle. The light chill, the sting of sun on his scalp—these cannot be fabricated. He stretches his arms over his head, sucks in air, thinks, not for the first time: Why not a show about people enjoying a beautiful day?
Then laughs to himself, imagining Boby al-Hajj’s face. The trail narrows along the edge of a high wall of rock. Fifty yards above, an ancient rockslide fills a wide bowl in the mountainside. Splintered wood spars and lengths of rusted sheet metal jut from the scree. The network’s holding company had acquired the island from a bankrupt mining outfit. It had taken three years to make the place hospitable enough to bring a crew, and still they are forbidden, at the underwriters’ insistence, to eat anything that grows or grazes in the island’s soil. A clause in each player’s contract indemnifies the network against “food-related medical liability.”
Needing to take a piss, the producer scrambles over loose rocks and spots a narrow opening. The network maps had said nothing about a cave. Most of this sector was shaded out, marked Ballard Corp. Operations Zone. HR would have a fit if they knew he were here.
The cave smells of ammonia and rotting meat, an acrid tang of metal that scrapes in the back of his throat. He shuffles in a few yards, gloom slipping over him like a bank robber’s mask. Feeling for a wall with his free hand, he waters the stone with piss and squints farther into the dark. The floor is slick with oily slime; after a dozen yards he can feel the roof lowering. He has no flashlight, not even a cigarette lighter. In his pocket, one hand clutches a small stone, turns it over and over, smooth and cool against his fingertips.
Sound is strangely distorted, as though different mixes are coming through different channels; he can’t tell if the scuffling in his ears is the echo of his footsteps or the defensive movements of something feral and blind. He presses on, heart quieting, breath slowing into keen concentration. There’s something here, something strange and numinous, something he ought to be able to use—but he doesn’t want to think too hard about it yet. Better to let it germinate, worm its own slow route into his consciousness. This is where twelve seasons’ ideas have come from: glimmers nursed with days of silence, unresponsive to everyone around him. Armand used to joke that it was a “quasi-autistic” kind of genius. His wife called it “going away,” as in: Why bother coming home?
When something slaps against the side of his head he cries out and crouches, one palm squelching in guano. The air is troubled and thick over his head, the sound of his breathing almost deafening, broken up by a rush of flutters and squeals as the cavemouth fills with quotation marks that bunch together and blow apart and disappear.
There had been bats in Benin, too—Season Six. Bats in the Tetons—Season Eight. They’d considered using bats into Antarctica, but it tested badly. Still, it’s been a while, he thinks, carefully straightening, slowing his breath the way his yoga teacher showed him. They ought to be able to do something here on the island. The sprout of an idea inches a little higher as he makes his way back to the entrance.
Eyes adjusted, he stops just before the entrance to frame a shot: treetops, ocean, a sliver of the command center’s curved metal roof. He examines what at first look like brown smudges on the rock wall, but upon closer inspection turn out to be drawings, climbing up and around the entrance, arranged in haphazard rows. He runs his fingertips over the crude images: stick figures, arrows, a sun and a moon, something that’s either a giant spider or a bear. Higher up, something that looks like a mountain breaking in two. A bird.
The producer frowns. What were they trying to say? All this time in their shit-stinking cave, and all they drew was what they saw every day. Why couldn’t he find a symphony written in the stone? Some unimagined wisdom of the ancients? But no, it turns out the island’s former inhabitants were just as banal as the Deserted. His three-year-old niece could have drawn this crap.
Five, he corrects himself. His niece is five. Or six.
Still, he stares at the drawings for a long time. His pulse slows, his vision narrows. There’s something here, he thinks. Something more than local flavor. We’ve got more local flavor than we know what to do with. We’ve got binders full of it. Wardrobe assistants paid to think of nothing else. But this is different.
Beyond the cavemouth the wind is rising. The gusts resolve into the sound of rotors, a pall of grit blowing across the stone, the whine and roar of the network helicopter rising out of the basin to fetch him. Time to get back to work. He looks for a stick to scrape the drying shit off his shoes but decides not to bother. He’s got a five-bedroom at the top of Laurel Canyon, a condo in Mumbai, and a ten percent share in a tiny key east of St. Barts. He’s got a mint ’58 Corvette and a limited-edition Bentley, closets full of hand-stitched Italian suits, a home entertainment system that’s triggered lawsuits. He’s got private jets at his disposal and a wine cellar recently featured in GQ. But the producer’s prized possessions are rocks.
He’s collected them from every corner of the world: deserts, prairies, barrier reefs, pre-Columbian ruins, Pleistocene formations, catacombs, ice floes. Varied in size, shape, and color, veined with metal or jutting with crystal, his collection is housed in a teak showcase that goes, by contract, wherever he goes, sitting like a monument in his private quarters.
The quarters themselves are spartan, a double-wide trailer with raised ceilings and hardwood floors, half of which is taken up by his meditation space. No one may enter without invitation; by standing order the APs may call the red phone only in case of nuclear war or act of God. Back in the day, he’d wait until Week 7 and then bring some twenty-year-old intern here, fuck her acrobatically on the hardwood while rain-scented mist shot from atomizers in the walls and hidden speakers played Tibetan chants recorded by his yoga teacher. But now he spends his off-hours in the lotus position, sipping green tea and contemplating rocks.
The one he keeps in his pocket is the newest addition, a reddish ovoid no bigger than a dog-tag, cracked obliquely and speckled with shiny black chips. He found it one morning last spring on the northern edge of Puget Sound. He was sprinting barefoot on a secluded, stony beach—the soles of his feet shredding, a blinding ecstasy of pain that shot up into his jaw and forced a high howl into his throat; bleeding and exhausted, he stopped, needing something hard in his hand, needing to throw it with enough force to dislocate his shoulder. Arm cocked, he caught sight of an airplane, a glint at low altitude banking toward distant Seattle, and stopped.
The plane, silent and tiny, glided down through the sky. “No more,” he’d said, panting a cold cloud. He knelt on the beach, let the pain diffuse through his body. This rock would mark the end of it, he decided, a symbol of his decision to leave the pain behind. He squeezed it until his hand throbbed, then slipped it in his pocket and limped back into the woods. Later, in his tent, he would think about that airplane, how small and fragile it was, tilting on one wing, sliding silently back to the world. It was like the stone—heavy and solid, just as likely to fall out of the sky and disappear in the dark water. All the people on board would be lost. It could not be predicted or edited: It would just happen. Five weeks earlier they’d found his wife’s car at the bottom of a ravine in the Angeles National Forest. The car had burned, killing her and the man she’d left him for. Their bodies—bones and muscle and hair and nails—were fused into the upholstery and springs. They’d had to identify them by their teeth.
In his private quarters, the producer powers the monitors on the bedroom wall, logs into the system and punches up the afternoon’s footage: a crossbow hunt gone terribly wrong. Already his inbox overflows with stern emails from Legal. But no word from Boby. His assistants wave off his growing concern, but the producer thinks he knows what’s happening: the new VP, this twenty-something hair-gel addict in alligator shoes, this absinthe-sipping, Twitter-loving Wharton-grad thumbsucker, is sweating him. And he’s right.
“La plus ça change,” Armand says over the phone. “Remember when we were the young Turks?”
“I remember when you were a young Greek. Come to think of it, I remember when you were an old Greek.”
“Wasn’t that fun? Now I’m just another saggy gringo. But at least I have a tan. And my español is getting major.”
“Terrific,” the producer says. “Next season, Mexico?”
“The Deserted?” He hears Armand light a cigarette and wearily blow out the smoke. “I don’t think so. They couldn’t stand the isolation.”
For an hour he runs searches in the database—conversations about caves, about bats, about poetry, corporate lawyers, dentistry. Season Two: the Deserted shelter for a night in a cave in the Maghreb. Season Eight: the Deserted, blindfolded, search a cave in the Tetons for new iPod Shuffles. Season Ten, a college baseball coach named Steve LeBlanc: “I wish I could crawl into a cave somewhere and die.” Also Season Ten, a lawyer gives a cop a hand-job in a freshly dug trench. “Caveat emptor,” says an insurance adjustor, Season Eleven, after cheating a pediatrician out of dinner. There have been five previous lawyers, one dentist, one periodontist, a grantwriter who once published a chapbook of poetry. Results related to bats take up four screens. The new software records the producer’s search terms, runs them through statistical analyses, cross-references with recent performance evaluations, Nielsen ratings, quarterly assessments by his therapist. A report is being generated as we speak.
On the monitors, Walter Bernatelli, the Marine, is scrubbing bamboo plates in a barrel, conspiring with Stan, the mechanic. “What do you want to do about Shaneequio?”
“What about him?”
The ex-Marine shrugs. Cut to Shaneequio, the gang-outreach counselor, strolling down the beach with Candy, the corporate lawyer.
“We’re gonna need the muscle,” Stan says.
“You think he won’t stab you in the back when he gets a chance? I’ve seen guys like him at Pendleton. Always got something to prove. You tell them, ‘There’s no I in team’ and they look at you like they’re gonna rape your sister.” He puts the last plate into the basket, leans closer to Stan. “Where do you want to be when a guy like that’s got a weapon in his hands?”
“I hear you,” says Stan.
What the producer had felt in the cave was bigger than the darkness, the eerie drawings, the guano. A stillness, a focus. It reminded him of meditation, those too-rare moments when the noise drops away, the sense of yourself—the hardness of the floor, awareness of sounds, the feeling of being bound by a mortal sack of meat and viscera—starts to dissolve. He misses that feeling. Lately, when he tries to meditate, he is overwhelmed by the sense of himself. He can see himself standing on that Washington beach, face raised toward the sky. He can hear the shriek he’d held back, imagine himself doubling over and collapsing, rocking himself on the hard ground. A vision so pathetic it jolts him right out of his quiet, Ujayyi breathing gone to shit, squeezing the stone in his pocket to keep from kicking something.
“There’s a long game to be played,” Bernatelli tells Stan.
Candy trots up and puts her hands over Bernatelli’s eyes. “Guess who?” she says.
“Heidi Klum?” Bernatelli says in a bored voice.
Stratus clouds speed overhead. Gloria Hamm sits splay-legged in the sand, peeling a lemon.
An errant bolt from someone’s crossbow had grazed Alejandra’s cheek, opening a nasty but shallow gash that drenched her tank top and painted her hands like a scene from a slasher movie. One player fainted at the sight of it, fell eight feet out of the tree in which he’d been hiding. An audio tech jumped into the frame and tried to give First Aid. That tech is now unemployed.
The producer rewinds the edited segment, trying to figure out who took the shot, who was the actual target. He examines the ISO feeds at more angles and speeds than the Zapruder film, but it’s impossible to determine.
It hardly matters. By the end of the week it will have been resequenced, the audio sweetened, the lighting recast to create the right mood. Someone will add an incriminating flashback, stolen shots in slo-mo, until they’ve created the story they want to tell—and to hell with what really happened. “What really happened gets about a four share,” Armand used to say.
The producer has taught his team well. If it moves the story forward, there’s no one who couldn’t be the shooter. More troubling, there’s no one who wouldn’t be the shooter, if they thought it would raise their profile, separate them from the pack.
Though no one would buy Gloria Hamm as the shooter.
There she is again, he thinks, watching her pluck thorns from her socks. What is it that draws his attention to her? She seems completely uninterested in what happens to the others. She barely speaks, never makes a scene, seems not to care if she gets on camera at all. She’s nondescript, a dud—just the kind of thing they can’t afford. Not this season.
“Better shape up, kid,” he breathes.
It’s a peaceful night, the ocean translucent, the horizon an inkblot of blue clouds. As the others get ready for sleep, one of the Deserted comes to the water’s edge and starts to sing.
“When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are…” Her voice starts out shy, reedy, but slowly gains confidence, turning sultry and operatic. “Anything your heart desires will come to you…”
Simon, the poet, claps enthusiastically. Bernatelli appraises the singer with narrowed eyes.
Alejandra touches the thick bandage on her cheek. “Who does she think she is?” she whispers to Candy.
Candy glowers. “Seriously. What show does this bitch think she’s on?”
“Look up,” says the producer.
But no one looks up. A wolf-whistle from the campfire. “How about some rock and roll?” cries Stan. “You can leave your hat on…”
Even Shaneequio cracks a smile.
“What, from Miss Priss?” says Candy.
“Oh, cut her some slack,” says Simon.
“Go fuck yourself, you little pussy,” Candy says. “Go write a poem.”
The scene devolves into insults and grumbles. No one looks at the sky. No one notices when the first stars emerge between tattered clouds, constellations never before observed by man or woman, created specially, and at great expense, with algorithms developed in Cupertino. In the beginning there was the Idea, a passionate if inchoate sense of purpose with which they descended from Armand’s roof, armed only with a process message that, looking back, was audaciously vague: Viewers will see what it is like to be other people. They will learn the truth of the human heart and mind.
From idea to pitch, then a string of meetings in which the suits were frankly uncomprehending but intrigued. Free will: a concept of such beautiful simplicity no one quite knew how to discuss it. You chose the environment, replete with its own challenges, dropped the unsuspecting players into it and left them alone. No host, no gags, no idiotic games. And no intervention. When they pointed out how much they’d save in casting and postproduction costs, the suits raised their eyebrows and leaned back in their chairs.
“We’re thinking of calling it Abandonned! With an exclamation mark,” the producer said. The suits frowned. “We’re not married to it,” he said.
They’d had to leverage every ounce of Armand’s reputation, but in the end they got everything they wanted. Six months later they were in the Everglades, sweating their asses off, watching ten exhausted strangers learn to hate each other, their manners and habits unraveling into atavism. A year later all the networks were trying to copy what they’d done. There were licensed clones of the show in eight countries.
But now their revolution is in trouble, their innovations passé. Once upon a time people had wanted an unfiltered window into the lives of their fellow man and woman, a mirror held up to the world. Sure, that mirror had to be adjusted, the window tinted, a nudge here, an edit there, to reel the story in—reality, after all, is infinite and ever changing; television, on the other hand, is all too finite. You needed to schedule your spots with some degree of accuracy. But the idea! The idea had been sound.
Now the market is flooded with crude gimmicks, ever more extravagant rewards. The mirror is warped beyond recognition. In its spare simplicity the idea has come to seem priggish, as quaint as the original working title. How can the producer compete with shows about extreme sex reassignment, public-transit sabotage, hunger strike competitions? A source in Burbank says Boby is developing an Ultimate Fighting show featuring spouses with a history of domestic violence. Before such spectacle, such degradation, the producer feels helpless, a dinosaur. Even the blogs have turned against him. They’d gotten the green light for the new season, but everyone can sense a reckoning coming, a new paradigm taking shape: postreality, though no one can yet say what that means.
“Listen up, people!” Bernatelli tears a strip of denim from a blackened pair of jeans, ties it around his head Rambo-style. “I know you’re tired. I know it’s been a tough day. But let me tell you all something –”
The producer, in full lotus on the floor of his quarters, closes his eyes. “When the going gets tough…” he says.
“When the going gets tough…” Bernatelli says.
The producer hits mute.
With each passing season he grows less convinced of the Deserted’s reality, of their basic humanity. They’re cardboard cutouts, the personas they develop ever more elaborate and yet more predictable. Miley, one of the APs, calls it “televolution,” the way their personalities hew ever closer to those of previous seasons, other shows, their triumphs, failures, love affairs, betrayals converging like images in an elevator mirror. And they’re happy to do it: They’re killing each other for the opportunity. No humiliation or discomfort is too much. The sex-changers, the mothers who beat their children on camera, the couples who document their own ugly divorces. The husbands who screw their secretaries, the wives who screw their trainers, the secretaries who screw their bosses’ wives. Cinemax’s new show follows a group of high-school girls in a contest to give the most blowjobs on a summer trip to Europe. Hookers turned kindergarten teachers, housewives turned hookers, drug dealers turned Christian marriage counselors. Whole families cooking up publicity stunts in their garages. Prison inmates rioting with story outlines in their back pockets. It’s been a long time since The Wrecking Ball, when they’d just knock on someone’s door and offer her a new home.
“It’s like they’re writing it for us,” the producer tells Armand. “Who taught them to do that?”
“Why, you did,” says Armand. “We both did.”
They’re quiet a moment, strains of mariachi music coming through the phone, the plaintive strains of a lovesick singer. They still serenade in San Miguel, Armand says. The men still stand below their beloved’s window and pour out their souls, despite the millions who’ve done it before.
“It was supposed to be about unpredictability,” the producer says. “Remember? About how different people are. It’s depressing.”
“There’s this lovely café just off the main square,” says Armand. “Have I told you? Colorful umbrellas, tables right on the sidewalk. I sit there all afternoon, sometimes, and at four o’clock the vocational school across the street lets out, all these young men in black pants, white button-down shirts, twenty, twenty-one…” The music comes closer, Armand puts down the phone—the producer can hear him waving off the band. “Anyway, it makes me happy just watching.”
“Up to your old tricks,” the producer says, flicking the sound back on.
On the island, the campfire is dying, the faces of the Deserted fading to shadow. From the dark interior comes the lonesome howl of a coyote. It’s the same coyote that howled across the Steppe, the same coyote that stalked the Deserted through the Tetons. “You hear the one about the little kid, the queer, and the priest in a rowboat?” says Bernatelli. The others groan. The sky has cleared to a sad, nacreous indigo, spattered with brilliant stars in intricate patterns.
“Look up,” says the producer. No one looks up.
The stars had been Miley’s idea, an ambitious deal with Pixar that involved points on the show’s syndication, Making Of… rights, and generous advertising for WALL•E III.
If they already know what’s expected of them, why pay consultants to build the perfect cast? You could scoop ten people off the street and soon they’d be forming cabals, plotting revenge, making threats, performing fellatio, sobbing on cue. You didn’t have to create the Deserted: just give people a chance to express the Deserted they already wanted to be.
“Look up, dumbasses,” he says. He closes his eyes, squeezes the stone until his forearm aches.
When he opens them, there’s Gloria, caught unawares by a sand-cam as she picks something out of her teeth. What role is she playing? Who has she decided to be?
The producer has no idea.
After an eternity, she lets out a sigh and turns away from the others. While he holds his breath, Gloria leans back in the sand and at last lifts her face to the lovely, perilous sky.
Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Foster Altschul from “Deus Ex Machina.” Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.Wait, before you go…
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