The Spectators by Jennifer duBois
Published: April 2nd, 2019 by Random House
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Synopsis: A shocking crime triggers a media firestorm for a controversial talk show host in this provocative novel–a story of redemption, a nostalgic portrait of New York City, and a searing indictment of our culture of spectacle.
Talk show host Matthew Miller has made his fame by shining a spotlight on the most unlikely and bizarre secrets of society, exposing them on live television in front of millions of gawking viewers. However, the man behind The Mattie M Show remains a mystery–both to his enormous audience and to those who work alongside him every day. But when the high school students responsible for a mass shooting are found to be devoted fans, Mattie is thrust into the glare of public scrutiny, seen as the wry, detached herald of a culture going downhill and going way too far. Soon, the secrets of Mattie’s past as a brilliant young politician in a crime-ridden New York City begin to push their way to the surface.
In her most daring and multidimensional novel yet, Jennifer duBois vividly portrays the heyday of gay liberation in the seventies and the grip of the AIDS crisis in the eighties, alongside a backstage view of nineties television in an age of moral panic. DuBois explores an enigmatic man’s downfall through the perspectives of two spectators–Cel, Mattie’s skeptical publicist, and Semi, the disillusioned lover from his past.
With wit, heart, and crackling intelligence, The Spectators examines the human capacity for reinvention–and forces us to ask ourselves what we choose to look at, and why.
Review: This book was quite a conundrum for me to read. There were some major good points and some major bad points. Ultimately, I can’t say that I liked the book because it felt like a really big missed opportunity that failed to deliver on much of what it promised.
This book is told in two points of view and multiple timelines. Each chapter is titled with the narrator and the years it covers to make it easier to follow along, until the last chapter which was very confusing. It covers a span from the 70s to the 90s and discusses a lot of serious topics. It talks about the AIDS crisis in the gay community. It covers school shootings. It covers the new freak show of our era, trash TV. It covers public reaction to all of the above. It was a very ambitious novel and didn’t quite pull it off.
**Mild Spoilers Alert**
Our first narrator is Semi, which I thought was an innuendo until the author piped in that it’s pronounced like semi-truck and then I wasn’t really sure what it was supposed to be because I have always heard that pronounced with a hard I sound. But I’m getting off point. Semi was a great narrator. He was the former lover of Mattie M, back when he was a local politician and lawyer with his eyes on the mayorship of New York. I loved hearing about his love story with Mattie and I loved hearing about his perspective on the AIDS crisis. My only complaint is that I didn’t actually learn anything about Semi as a person. He told his story through the stories of his friends, So while I enjoyed his narration, I didn’t feel like I got to know him at all since he was hiding his truth behind his friends.
Cel is the narrator for much of the portion of the book that covers the school shooting and ensuing chaos, She is the publicist for the Mattie M Show. To be quite frank, I have no idea what she was doing in this novel. She didn’t have a single ounce of personality and rarely spoke more than a fragment of a sentence at a time. Her back story was confusing so I couldn’t even get emotionally involved in that aspect of her story. I also have no idea how or why the show hired her as a publicist. She doesn’t like the job and she doesn’t even seem to know how to do the job. Most of her story is making snarky one liners at other staff of the show, complaining about her job to her friends, and watching TV in bars. She doesn’t do anything. Then at the end of the book she decides to quit her job and become a stand up comedienne? Where the fuck did that come from? She went to a comedy club one time with a reporter and implied she had been there before, but she is not funny and we are given no indication that she ever wanted to do anything like that.
The first 125 pages of the book are largely useless. If I was the editor, I’d have scrapped them entirely. It is mostly Semi talking about his friends and Cel trying to avoid doing work. We only get into the meat of what the novel is supposed to be about about at page 130 and then it started to get awesome. After that point, I was completely invested and thought the novel was making some very profound points.
What I got from the novel is that television and news events are the new blood sport of our day. Whether we’re watching a trashy reality TV show, watching a play about some emotionally charged event, or watching news coverage on a tragedy. We are not actually watching the thing. We are not actually interested in the thing itself. It doesn’t matter how it begins. It doesn’t matter how it ends. The truth doesn’t matter either. The point is that we’re watching it. As the book says toward the end, we’re an audience, watching an audience, watching an audience. I was a little stunned at how profound I found this book based on how badly it began.
Then we got to the ending and it disappointed me again. In the end, the author decides to give us the truth. Give us the truth about what’s in the letters. Give us the truth of what the play was about. Give us the truth about Mattie M and Semi. I was so disappointed that I wanted to stop reading. We just spent approximately 200 pages telling the reader that the truth of these things was irrelevant. I was just another audience, watching an audience, watching an audience. So then if these things don’t matter, why are you insisting on telling me?
Maybe, in the end, I read too much into the book. Maybe the author didn’t actually intend to make any profound and philosophical points. Maybe she didn’t think she could resist giving me the final pieces of the puzzle. But, regardless, it damaged the book for me.