Everyone needs heroes. The type of super-person you can only hope to be one day. God- or goddess-like figures, with an almost completely unattainable public persona. When you’re a kid growing up, and your mom or dad stops being your personal hero, you start looking at the people who excel at something you would like to excel at too: a sports hero, a musical hero, a gifted writer, a talented speaker, maybe even a historical figure.
Enter the concept of “reality TV”, with its instant-made heroes and heroines. The types of shows where excellence is not so much a requirement as it is often an obstruction. There’s a “reality” program to hold everyone’s fancy, from ‘competitive’ reality TV shows like Survivor and Project Runway to reality shows about “lifestyles”, like Teen Mom, Supernanny or Extreme Hoarders. Reality shows on TV now also often include a level of audience interaction (e.g. Idol)[i]. Why do people watch these shows (btw, most people claim they never watch them, … yeah, right…)? Apparently, the human being’s innate need to feel superior is one of the major reasons for the success of these voyeuristic shows. People want to feel like they are better than other people (“look at them, thank god that’s not me!”)… and this is then used as the basis for TV networks to produce shows that – manipulatively so, because there’s very little ‘real’ about ‘reality’ TV – show people as they really are. Given the many suicides of people who once appeared on reality shows, it’s actually surprising that there’s no Suicide Show, I’m sure people would watch that too… to quench their immeasurable thirst for feeling superior.
When A.S. King returned from Ireland, that’s what she noticed about TV: for the sake of other people’s entertainment, people needed to suffer, and she came up with her own Survivor story: that of Gerald Faust. Faust… remember the guy who made a pact with the devil? The guy who wanted to have it all, worldly pleasures and unlimited knowledge but had to give his soul to get it? In Gerald’s case, it’s Gerald’s mother who turns over her soul to the devils of Network Nanny. The question, however, is: what power and what success does Gerald’s mom hope to achieve here? What sort of hero does she want to be? For Gerald it’s as clear as day: by turning him over to these outsiders, she will never be his hero.
A.S. King has proved before that she is the queen of the odd perspective (we’ve had pagodas, ants, …) but in Reality Boy, there’s only one perspective and there’s nothing frivolous about it. Instead, the point of view is an extremely claustrophobic one: we are inside Gerald’s head and only inside Gerald’s head. Gerald is very much obsessed by his own narrow world too, a world which includes a fantasy retreat, which he calls Gersday, his happy place where he doesn’t have a psycho sister and a weak-ass mother, but where he gets Snow White and ice cream instead. Until he meets Hannah, Gerald doesn’t see any way out of his world, real or fantasized. This narrow perspective has some obvious consequences (which as a reader, you have to take or leave): secondary characters are seen solely through Gerald’s (maybe) distorted lens, which results in a very black and white picture of e.g. Tasha and Gerald’s mother. This is a very ambiguous and ambitious route to take given the fact that Gerald himself doesn’t want to be seen from just one single point of view, namely that of a camera lens (or rather that of the editor’s cutting board) of a reality show of when he was only 5 or 6 years old.
There are many reasons why I loved Reality Boy as much as I did. For one, the way A.S. King describes how the walls Gerald has built around himself are slowly broken down by that one truly real and universal thing called love, without ever making this seem sappy or sentimental. Second, she never fails to include these tiny bits of strangeness that make her novels so unique (here it’s running away with the circus). There’s also King’s powerfully real language. It’s never more complicated than it should be. It’s never gratuitous. This woman can write. That’s what it comes down to: she is immensely and insanely talented as a writer.
But she’s also a keen observer of human behavior, something which makes her into an even better writer. And more than any other A.S. King book, I related to Reality Boy not as the teen I once was, but as the mother that I am right now. Yes, there was the obvious compassion with Gerald, and his almost desperate attempts at real communication, but it was more than that. Amy King sees through the bullshit and she has her protagonists go through all kinds of bullshit too, which always (ALWAYS) makes for an emotionally draining and intense reading experience. This book, for instance, absolutely reinforces my own belief that certain people should never ever be parents. Kids know more than you tell them, and Gerald is one of those kids. He knows his mother never loved him, not in the way she “loves” his oldest sister Tasha. He also knows his mother is too weak to change her life. He knows that his mother has surrendered any form of moral integrity she may have had before she let the cameras into their house. He knows that his life has always been a twisted mess of ugliness and he knows that he’s not the one who’s different or wrong or stupid or retarded or however he’s been called by people around him. And he is fucking angry because of this. And he should be angry because of this. Gerald has an inner rage that is so all-consuming that – even at age 5 – the only way he can express that anger is physically. At age 5 by crapping all over everything, at age 16 by punching people. Feeling like punching the crap out of that wall, kicking down that damn door, or throwing things out of the window? Of course, you’ve felt this too! Don’t be so damn politically correct: we have all felt like that at one point or other. And that is the way Gerald now feels all.the.time. It’s a miracle he hasn’t killed anyone (Tasha, his mother…) yet!
A.S. King does screwed up and horrifyingly realistic like no other. And even though this may sound odd, but it’s definitely a beautiful thing to read, time and again. I am fortunate enough to have a signed copy of Reality Boy and Amy asked what my demands are. Easy: I want more of this. Having no gift whatsoever as a writer myself, she’s sorta like my hero. Thanks, Amy!
[i] With newish media like YouTube, reality “shows”, are obviously no longer limited to television.