Ignacio de Loyola Brandao’s fourth book to appear in English, Anonymous Celebrity is most definitely the novel of his most concerned with contemporary issues, and may well be his funniest and richest novel to date. I say this as a big fan of Brandao’s writing (and not just because it’s fun to pronounce his name), in particular Zero, which was my introduction to his odd, unsettled world and was a book that we reprinted during my time at Dalkey Archive Press.
Zero is a complex, dangerous book that tells of the life of its main character through myriad of techniques, styles, typographies, and (occasionally contradictory) storylines. All infused with a great, sick sense of humor, and enough political shit to result in the book being banned by the Brazilian government when it was first published.
Brandao’s fragmented technique (and especially his penchant for dropping crazy over-sized fonts into his text) is employed in both Teeth under the Sun (also Dalkey) and And Still the Earth (currently out-of-print), but not nearly to the same symphonic effect as it is in Zero and now Anonymous Celebrity.
Anonymous Celebrity was first published in Brazil in 2002, and in contrast to his earlier books, Brandao has replaced his concerns about living under an extreme political regime with the idea of how to live in an age of media saturation and an overwhelming obsession with celebrity.
Even prior to the ending (which sort of is a rug pulling bit that would’ve been more effective—in my opinion—if it was a bit more concise and even more devastating), this is a tricksy sort of book narrated by a totally unreliable narrator. Check that: he’s not necessarily “unreliable,” rather, he’s someone obsessed with image, with celebrity, with being famous, being known, and knows that celebrity is based in falsehood, half-truths and contrived settings. For instance, here’s a short bit from the section “List of Essential Consultants to the Famous,” which starts off reasonably enough (Secretary, Agent, Lawyer), then becomes more fun:
Consultant on Lying. Specifically about my life. Someone who composes lies about me to be divulged to the media. Completely different than a press agent. For instance: I was a street kid and only learned to read when I was sixteen. At eighteen, at night, I performed at intersections doing acrobatics with lit torches, collecting money from interested or sympathetic drivers. One night, hungry and hurt by her refusal, I shoved one of my torches into a whore’s face. My father never acknowledged my paternity. They say the great Portuguese novelist Eca de Querios—whose novel The Maias was turned into a miniseries—was a bastard too. Comparing me to Eca is a great idea! A literary giant. I should probably read one of his books.
And then Drivers. I’m going to need three, working in shifts, given the intensity of my life. The night driver will suffer the most—he’ll have to carry me when I fall down dead drunk or faint from mixing Red Bull and ecstasy—I’m less and less in control. Though I quit the heavy drugs a long time ago. I’m clean.
Clean, on ecstasy, a street kid, and willing to accept any sponsorship—whatever it takes to be famous. Some of the great humor of the book comes from the narrator’s advice on how to become a celebrity, usually related in Rabelaisian-like lists that wax manic, starting from a recognizable place before slipping into the absurd.
Amid these lists upon lists of things to say to the press, ways to get yourself in photographs, how to be sponsored every day of the month, etc., there is a fairly compelling storyline involving the narrator’s desire to off “Lead Actor,” aka LA, aka the actor who looks almost identical to our (un)trustworthy narrator and is the reason our narrator isn’t as famous as he could be. But if the LA was dead, then our narrator could easily slip into all of his roles and achieve an even greater celebrity . . .
This plot doubles back on itself, slides in and out of reality (like almost everything else in the book), and is upended entirely in the end, but it does serve as a sort of MacGuffin on which to hang all the various threads that comprise this book, one of the best of which is the “Rescuing the Anonymous” sections that recognize those who brushed up against a moment of celebrity, but didn’t get to take full advantage. Like Marli Renfro, who served as Janet Leigh’s body double in Psycho, or the unknown friends present in a photograph of Hemingway.
In many ways, Anonymous Celebrity reads like a looseleaf collection of fragments from the mind of a potentially insane, definitely obsessed man. The prose is snappy (thanks in part to Nelson Vieira’s translation) and buzzes, with each section revealing a different facet of his obsession/insanity. And taken in bits, this is an incredibly fun, incredibly varied read. And out of the layered piles of ideas and lists, conspiracies and obsessions, something pretty amazing emerges. Definitely worth checking out.
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .
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Let’s not deceive ourselves, man is nothing very special. In fact, there are so many of us that our governments don’t know what to do with us at all. Six billion humans on the planet and only six or seven. . .
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .