PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Cover illustration: David Smith
In Defying Reality Karina Mellinger has written a spiky, amusing follow up to her first novel, A Bit of a Marriage. That charted a series of extraordinary events in a day in the life of the bored wife of a commercial lawyer with spicy, grim wit; this, as taut, zany and pleasurable as its predecessor, is a satirical take on celebrity culture.
Serena Dawlish is the black-and-green-nail-varnish-wearing 'top soap actress' who, at 29, is told by her agent that she is 'no spring chicken'. Married (unsuccessfully) to James, a Shakespearean actor with Carpe Diem tattooed on his penis, her life is measured out in photo-ops and freebies, all directed by her troll-like agent Gary.
Morals mean nothing to her; it only matters if she can appear on the front of a magazine with punctuation in its title. James, meanwhile, is having an affair with Geraldine ('a Modigliani in a trouser suit'), the producer of the programme which will turn out to have a devastating effect on all their lives: I Gave Birth to a Celebrity.
Serena is scheduled to appear on the show as part of a package devised by Gary to make her career explode; she must also visit a centre for adults who can't read. There she meets Marlon - handsome, muscular and, unfortunately, labouring under the delusion that Serena is an alien. When Marlon's mother Shelley (lank-haired, crisp-eating) is invited by Geraldine to pretend to be Serena's mother on I Gave Birth, things come to a frenzied, televised climax.
Mellinger's sense of comic irony is delicious, as she juxtaposes character's viewpoints to great effect. And, like PG Wodehouse, she marshals her large cast and preposterous plot with economy - no gesture is wasted, no object insignificant. She is adept at giving her characters little touches of humanity which makes their behaviour both appalling and appealing. Some might say that she has chosen an easy target, but there are dark undercurrents and a piercing intelligence which make this a sharp-clawed gem.
Serena Dawlish is a beautiful and famous soap star. Her appearances on 'Coombe Ridge Crescent' has shot her to stardom, but her manager still thinks she needs to be more famous. Serena will do anything to be famous forever, but things get complicated as real life keeps getting in the way. Karina Mellinger uses sharp, witty writing to give us a colourful insight into Serena’s world and our preoccupation with age, fame and celebrity culture.
If you give in to it, this farce is quite a hoot, Mellinger writes with zip and gumption, her prose as lively and bitchy as a Soho members' club at midnight. Not for those requiring enlightenmaent, but fun for the commute.
Serena Dawlish, the main character of this, Karina Mellinger’s second novel has been voted 'The Most Attractive Woman in a Soap’ by readers of ‘Turn Me On’ magazine for the third time, but her manager is anxious lest her fame may yet be ephemeral. He sends her to cultivate her caring persona at an adult literacy class, and signs her and her mother up for a new television show, I Gave Birth to a Celebrity’, in order to exhibit her psychological complexity. This is a long shot, considering Serena has never had an emotion without motive in her life; this trait is one of the only things she has in common with her husband, a renowned Shakespearean actor, who often finds himself billed, much to his chagrin, as ’James Marlborough –winner of six Oliviers and two Tonys and HUSBAND OF SERENA DAWLISH, STAR OF COOMBE RIDGE CRESCENT.’ The other characteristic they share is a preposterous sense of their own importance and attractiveness, and this is an area where Mellinger excels. ’He (James) told his agent that James Marlborough incognito is an oxymoron but she went quiet so obviously this woman calls herself a theatrical agent and doesn’t even know what a bloody oxymoron is.’ By narrating conversations through the thoughts of the speakers Mellinger displays hilarious chasms between what is understood and what is meant.
The sense of the manufactured reality of modern celebrity provides the cue for more good jokes: when James finds a dead body in the garden, his immediate instinct is to move it quietly away. Serena is furious and rings her manager to discuss how to maximise the media opportunity: ’You go out there and move her body back to where it was so the whole thing looks more realistic.’ The opening scenes of sexual licentiousness may prove too repellent for some, but I urge you to press on to enjoy some very accomplished writing. The scene where Geraldine, a Cambridge graduate sophisticate, finds herself in a council flat surrounded by detritus and foodstuffs and a pile of clothes that ‘erupt majestically from the floor… like a piece of contemporary art’ is masterly, and Mellinger fits in two of her finest conversations of mutual misunderstanding here.
Some of the coincidences that make up the plot push the boundaries of belief, but satire is a genre that revels in the unlikely, and, as far as pitching that satire goes, Mellinger never puts a foot wrong. Indeed, in a society where Jodie Marsh has been contractually obliged to marry the winner of her television show, it would be difficult to create an implausible tale of modern celebrity, but Mellinger delights in the absurdity of this culture without snarling at it, and has, for the second time, pulled off a very amusing novel.