Hollywood Babble On

Reboot By Justin Taylor. NEW YORK: PANTHEON. 304 PAGES. $28.

The cover of Reboot

MEET THE CAST: David Crader, a washed-up child actor, author of the celebrity memoir that constitutes the bulk of Justin Taylor’s second novel, Reboot; Amber, David’s long-suffering second ex-wife, mother of his child, in whose life David appears, in his own words, as “an occasional cameo”; Grace Travis, David’s first ex-wife and former costar, diversifier-of-portfolio par excellence (“We can’t all be Gwyneth or Busy,” Grace says, “but we do what we can”); Shayne Glade, David’s best frenemy and former costar, a buffer and more talented foil; Molly Webster, culture writer, bartender, holder of an MFA in “speculative nonfiction”; Corey Burch, once the cast’s “Designated Fat Kid™” (as Molly puts it), now a gun-toting, iron-pumping deep statist running for mayor somewhere in Florida; and a few extremely online rogue elements we won’t @. The premise: Rev Beach, the (fictional) early-aughts teenybopper that David, Grace, Shayne, and Corey acted in, is due for a reboot. Why, exactly, no one knows. “It popped up on streaming during lockdown,” Molly speculates in an online explainer that the novel reproduces, “and the algorithm got a hard-on for it, and people—you ridiculous people, you clicked.” One small problem: the cast members hate each other, and it’s all David’s fault.

David could use the money (his current gigs include voice-acting for a video game “for stupid incel babies” and managing a small bar), and a little fame wouldn’t hurt—so he’s very pro-reboot. He also knows he must make amends for his past betrayals; he doesn’t hide how badly he’s screwed things up and screwed friends over. On the whole, he abides by a principle one character states outright: “Memoir only works if the author is willing to indict herself as much as all the other characters.” (Taylor too: in his 2020 memoir, Riding with the Ghost, he frankly assesses his relationship with his late father.) Reboot is replete with self-deception that recognizes itself as such. Of a bender, David notes, “I was a few over my limit and wrote myself a mental IOU for the days ahead, when I wouldn’t drink at all, so this week would average out to me having met my limit, even though that wasn’t exactly—wasn’t remotely—how this was supposed to work.” Lest you feel sorry for him, David mocks his own bids for sympathy: “I was someone who, at sudden and unexpected moments, needed to be pitied in a deep and ugly way.”

Reboot, by David Crader, is a celebrity memoir, which isn’t saying much. By the rules of “personal branding,” every memoir is a celebrity memoir. The genre must satisfy both the reader’s desire for confession—I want to know, Prince Harry, that you are like me—and the celebrity’s desire to control the performance of confession. The personal brand, like many a video game villain, can absorb attacks to grow stronger. To truly destroy it, through the admission of a sin egregious enough to ensure one’s banishment, would be to forgo the brand’s object: fame. As David puts it: “the pleasure, the glory, the thrill of being the center of attention, the star of the show, the grinning headshot ripped from the magazine and taped to the bedroom wall.”

The celebrity memoir is concerned with the maintenance of an image because it has to be—it is occasioned by that image. If someone, whether a reader or a publisher, is going to give you a lot of money because of who you are (David is candid about receiving an “undeserved book advance”), then you better, in your book, be that person—or else differ from him in a redeeming way. David doesn’t hide his mistakes in his memoir, but he’s not forthright about them either. Sure, he’s pushing a lot down. Sure, he wants to look good. Less cynically, you could say he’s discovering his mistakes by writing about them. He putters for a couple hundred pages before fully disclosing the details of his betrayal and only then answers to his reticence: “I’ve held off telling it because I believe that when you speak, you are always also listening—or you should be. You are trying, in a sense, to ‘overhear’ yourself, and so to be changed by what you have heard yourself reveal no less than if someone other than yourself were the one revealing it to you.” David’s writing process is therapeutic. 

Relatively late in his story, we learn that as a teenager, fearful of being outperformed, David sabotaged a castmate and cut his career short. The reboot is David’s only hope of making things right. His effort is earnest and noble and comedic for its failure: “I’d done this one thing right today,” he says of a heartfelt monologue delivered during the aforementioned bender, “and perhaps redeemed myself after all, maybe not completely but in part, yes, a small down payment on redemption that I made this day, whatever day it was, and now I could rest.” With some self-consciousness, David acquiesces to the expectation that the memoir of a once-beloved child star be sincere and redemptive.

Reboot, by Justin Taylor, is a Hollywood satire, which, like any satire, runs the risk of being too like the thing it is poking fun at. The best orientation a satirist can have toward their subject is ambivalence, because ambivalence yields complexity, and complexity is interesting. How much could Cervantes have hated chivalric novels, to have read them all? How much can Taylor, opposer of trite and sentimental narrative, hate the celebrity memoir, to have packaged his novel in one?

Alex Israel, Self-Portrait (PCH), 2019, acrylic and Bondo on fiberglass, 96" × 84" × 4". Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York. Photo by Jason Mandella.
Alex Israel, Self-Portrait (PCH), 2019, acrylic and Bondo on fiberglass, 96" × 84" × 4". Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York. Photo by Jason Mandella.

Last year, while you were watching Netflix, Justin Taylor was writing at length on Cormac McCarthy, Lorrie Moore, Charles Portis, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Lexi Freiman. Dude is erudite. But he was watching Netflix too. Reboot is a Borgesian feast of real and invented films, Broadway shows, video games, records, and television. The elephant in the room, BoJack, appears early, and is followed by Buffy, Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig, Lena Dunham, Béla Tarr, and Stanley Kubrick (“you’re not sure you’ve ever stayed awake through the middle hour of 2001”).

Taylor’s expertise far surpasses name-dropping. His cultural references are functional; they build the world, propel the plot, develop character, make us laugh—and occasionally squirm. Shayne Glade, David’s former costar, sings six nights a week in an invented stage adaptation of David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis: “Shayne played Sheets/Levin as a comic figure, a holy fool like something out of Beckett, rather than as a blithering puddle of David Mamet rage like Paul Giamatti did in the Cronenberg film.” The whirlpool of names is beside the point: anyone who knows these works knows Shayne, knows Shayne’s work, and knows, by the novel’s end, that Shayne’s aptness for his role has a tragic dimension.

Voiced by David Crader, the novel’s encyclopedism poses a threat to its verisimilitude, but Taylor anticipates our doubt. Consider David’s application of Henry IV, Part 1, to his life: “I haven’t read the play, and I’m not going to, but I did watch The King (2019), with Timothée Chalamet and Ben Mendelsohn, directed by that Australian guy who made Hesher.” David disclaims having read the play, or even wanting to read the play, and omits the name of Spencer Susser (who’s American, but works with an Australian collective), as if to suggest that the references here are offhand. Don’t be fooled. David is addicted to alcohol, Taylor to being a critic: “To eulogize Hotspur, therefore,” ends the above note on The King, “is to eulogize the life he’s forsaken as much as the one he took. Hotspur has led Henry across the border of fate.” Taylor’s knack for explication is a good thing, so far as I’m concerned, because he’s very good at it—exceptionally learned in arts high and low, registers high and low, and refreshingly, often hilariously, indecorous. To narrate from the perspective of a Hollywood star, therefore, is to back himself into a corner, or, perhaps, into the company of Ryan Gosling, who, in character as Ken in a GQ video to promote Barbie, describes the value of books: “Books make people think you have interests.” Taylor’s constraint is ostentatious, imposed for the same reason, I suspect, that Houdini opted to escape from a straitjacket while hanging upside down from a crane or Perec wrote A Void without the letter e: to make things harder for himself, and, by extension, more fun.

To escape, Taylor exploits the celebrity memoir’s built-in loophole: the fact that it is not generally written by the person whose name and face appear on its cover, but by a ghostwriter. The ghostwriter may be very unlike the memoirist. In Reboot, this difference yields what David’s ghostwriter might call a dialectic: the “apparently spontaneous formation of an opposing faction.” Through the ghostwriter, Taylor grants himself access to an erudition otherwise implausible. He can have his Shakes and eat it too.

A dialectic, if it ever resolves, is supposed to yield truth. The problem, to quote David, is that “nothing is less plausible than the truth.” Nor is anything more boring. David says of Molly that she is “still young enough to believe that the worst thing a cool person could do in this world was say something boring and obvious, even if it happened to be true.” David’s insistence on being a chill guy, not the sort of guy who quotes Shakespeare, is not exactly chill. To continue David’s reflection on “overhearing”: “[My ghostwriter] said Harold Bloom said that this capacity for self-overhearing is what Shakespeare’s characters do in their soliloquies—they listen to themselves, are changed, and then act based on that change—and that this is the foundation of modern human consciousness. Or something.” Perhaps “or something” is a necessary reassertion of David’s voice into a temporarily hijacked narration. It may say something about me, and not something good, that I don’t quite buy it.

Exposition, too, is bracketed by apologies, despite being as absorbing as any part of the novel, particularly for this reader, a stranger to the online worlds of conspiracy that Taylor depicts with great humor and authority. “I hope the look on your face is less bored than the ones on ours in the photo,” David notes after a digression on the history of the Koreshan Unity. “This turned into a way longer detour than expected, and I guess I ended up doing the whole ‘explainer’ bit after all.” Is it the mark of a psyche shaped by the entertainment industry to fret about boring the reader? To assume that the reader, at the slightest decrease in pacing, will press “back” and find something else to stream? Plausibility aside, I was very rarely bored while reading this novel, except when it feared I was.

That might be the novel’s aim. Boredom, indeed, is its subject, and its enemy, and sometimes the best way to affect the reader is to refuse to. In a world where boredom drives people to believe in conspiracy theories—“always more tempting than the truth,” David reflects, “not because it’s a simpler story, but because it is a story”—pine for reposts, wreck the earth for sport and luxury, and kill strangers with pawned assault rifles, perhaps it really is to be avoided. But if there’s one thing that David is clear about, it’s that what you run from comes back to haunt you. 

Angelo Hernandez-Sias is at work on his first novel.