At the outset of The Fabrications, Baret Magarian’s delightfully absurd new novel, Oscar Babel’s got nothing much going on. He’s a sad sack projectionist at the local cinema and a failed painter. His friend Daniel Bloch is a self-loathing writer who has achieved commercial success but still fears he’s “regarded by the literary establishment as a joke.” So Bloch, wanting to write something different, something challenging, starts a story about Oscar. Strangely, Oscar’s life begins to parallel Bloch’s story, causing Bloch to give it up, wary of its apparent influence on the real world. Then, even stranger things begin happening when Oscar meets Ryan Rees, a publicist for the stars who has grown tired of marketing celebrities and wants instead to turn a nobody like Oscar into not just a celebrity but an actual messiah. Rees gets Oscar invites to the most fashionable parties in London, puts him up in a five-star hotel, and manufactures as much controversy as possible, and soon enough people begin paying attention to Oscar.
Oscar is clearly the novel’s protagonist, seeing as how the narrative revolves around his becoming a modern-day prophet, but the novel makes plenty of room for other characters, even if they don’t directly affect Oscar’s religious rise. There’s Bloch, of course, who kicks off the absurdity with his story that literally comes to life, and Lilliana, Oscar’s florist friend. Too, there’s Najette, an artist Oscar meets through Lilliana and with whom he falls in love. We glimpse snippets of these characters’ lives, meaning that the novel occasionally forsakes forward momentum in order to more fully flesh out its world. That’s mostly okay, partly because some of these side plots are awfully affecting — like Bloch moping over his divorce — and also because Mr. Magarian writes with a cultured wit and seems quite capable of making just about anything funny — Bloch’s ex-wife left him for his own father.
As funny as the novel is, it’s real strength is its use of language. Again and again, Mr. Magarian finds the exact right detail to render his scenes incredibly lifelike. Silences between characters grow weighty “like clay hardening and setting,” and a man’s snores sound like “the noise made by the final swirls of water as they are sucked down a drain.” He excels, too, at describing appearances. In the dusty back room of a library, the librarian’s “yellowing skin looked as if it might have been grafted out of the parchments lying on the desk,” while another woman has “so many rings pierced along her lower lip Oscar could picture the rings holding up a shower curtain, its width interlaced through them.” Using this vivid realism to ground the novel’s more surreal moments works remarkably well. By using absurdity to heighten reality, the novel actually succeeds in burrowing beneath it, searching out what’s just below the surface.
That there’s not much of value to find below the surface of celebrity culture doesn’t mean the novel itself lacks substance. Although our villain, publicist Ryan Rees, isn’t distinctive enough to command attention in a novel with so many options in terms of characters to focus on, his unapologetic hypocrisy is still the novel’s main vehicle for insight. He insists on giving Oscar a voice, but doesn’t seem interested in giving Oscar anything to say. He claims to be turning Oscar into a messiah, but the closest Oscar comes to church is a publicity stunt where Rees projects Oscar’s face onto the facade of a church in London. For Rees, any old messiah will do because the Second Coming is nothing more than a publicity stunt. In the end, Mr. Magarian pushes past the facile observation that celebrity culture is vapid and shows the dangers of a society that conflates celebrities with messiahs while also lowering the bar for fame so that just about anyone might clear it. After all, The Fabrication astutely asks, who needs Christ when the internet has allowed us to build monuments to ourselves?
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