The first story in Ben Greenman’s new collection is called Tall and Short. Some time in the not-so-far-away future, Paris Hilton (tall) and Nicole Richie (short) unexpectedly meet at the airport after a long separation. Warmly kissing each other, their eyes full of tears, the two reminisce about their days as childhood friends. “This is my husband, Joel, Joel Madden…He’s from Good Charlotte, the band, do you remember their albums? And this is my daughter, Harlow. She’s a third-grader,” says Nicole, proudly introducing the man and the child beside her. Not to be outdone, Paris informs her onetime friend that she is “in consideration to run a television studio.” This causes Nicole to turn pale, though her suddenly rigid visage soon gives way to “the broadest smile,” even as “she squirm[s],…double[s] together, crumple[s] up.” Claiming utter delight that the companion of her youth has become such a powerful woman, Nicole considers Paris with “an expression of such reverence, sugariness, and mawkish respectfulness that the production-company head was sickened.” Paris turns away, and Nicole presses her hand in parting, bowing with her whole body, as her husband and daughter join her in being “agreeably overwhelmed.”
Maybe you’ve heard it before. It sure does sound a very great deal like Fat and Thin, that one short story by Anton Chekhov, you may think. Or else it strikes you as the not unlikely future of those perpetual frenemies Paris and Nicole. Or perhaps you happen to be a celebrity gossipmonger with a sideline in the Russian classics, in which case you’re probably simply happy to finally have your two otherwise divergent loves finally, improbably reconciled. For the record, Paris and Nicole step in, in Greenman’s version, for Misha (fat) and Porfiry (thin) in Chekhov’s tale. And it does seem awfully decent of Greenman, given Nicole’s well-documented weight struggles, to have changed the friends’ eponymous characteristics.
Of course, when you stop to think about it, the reconciliation—realized in Ben Greenman’s Celebrity Chekhov, which, as you can probably surmise, repopulates Chekhov’s best-known stories of 19th-century Russia with the brightest, if not always the best, of contemporary American celebrities—is actually only improbable for not having happened earlier. For one thing, everyone loves a good remix, as recent literary mash-ups have amply demonstrated. If good old Jane Austen can be revitalized by zombies, made relevant by sea monsters, why not bring Chekhov into the bright sun of popular consciousness with some strategic celebretization? And for another, it sure seems to work for the movies, those adaptations of high-brow literary works you should’ve read but maybe didn’t get to, starring famous people you’re slightly ashamed to take interest in. To paraphrase Andy Warhol, in the future, all literary characters will be played by someone famous! To paraphrase Us Weekly, celebrities, they’re just like characters in a Chekhov story!
And how do our celebrities stack up against Chekhov’s ordinary Russians? Surely you don’t need me to tell you that betting against the Kardashians—newly minted stars of Joy—would be a fool’s errand, the sort of mistake that could not be made by any self-respecting cultural critic. The truth is, celebrities are Chekhov, in the sense that the famous-for-being-infamous, the late-night talk-show hosts, the pop idols and the fallen starlets stage life’s blessings and curses, allow us to study human nature, to comprehend something intimately true, uncomfortable though the realization might be, about our innermost selves. After all, Britney Spears (stepping in for the lady of A Lady’s Story) and Oprah Winfrey (taking her turn as the beautiful lady of An Enigmatic Nature) and Dave Letterman (anticipating retaliation in A Transgression) are fictions of a sort, their public personas doing their duty as types for us to admire and revile, to envy and pity. If Chekhov’s great gift as a short story writer is the succinct representation of human behavior and its many vagaries, then so too is this the gift of Sarah Palin (allowing her daughter to play with a sentimental gift presented to her upon retirement in The Album) and Tiger Woods (deceiving his wife and mother-in-law in Bad Weather) and Billy Ray Cyrus (getting groomed At the Barber’s).
Greenman’s own qualities as a storyteller are, by and large, irrelevant here, for he reproduces Constance Garnett’s translations of Chekhov’s stories faithfully, though he also handily adapts the details of late-19th-century Russian life to reflect post-millennial America. (And does all the celebrity casting!) To be fair, his idea isn’t an unamusing one, though the book’s precise purpose—mocking celebrity culture? Dignifying it? Restoring the humanity of figures trapped in the glare of spotlights?—never quite crystallizes. And maybe, to be perfectly honest, the exercises in style wear thin, but then, isn’t that rather true of Chekhov’s work, with all that yearning and longing and disappointment? Or maybe I am just impatient to get started on a reworking of 120 Days of Sodom. Disney de Sade, I think I’ll call it.
Ben Greenman’s Celebrity Chekhovwas released on October 5 by Harper Perennial. To purchase it, click here.