The cover of 'Elimination Night'. (New Harvest )
New Harvest: 304 pp., $25
If the anonymous author of "Elimination Night," set behind the scenes of a singing-competition TV show very much — perhaps exactly — like "American Idol," is difficult to identify, the same cannot be said of most of the novel's characters.
There's "erect-nippled" British judge Nigel Crowther, a.k.a. "Mr. Horrible," a pop producer who made a name for himself on "Project Icon" with his sneering, metaphorical insults. He's leaving the show after 12 seasons to start a nearly identical rival show, "The Talent Machine," also to air on the Rabbit network.
That leaves avuncular, hefty session musician JD Coolz — whose signature is spouting bland euphemisms such as "dude, for me, that was just OK …" and "you're not ready yet," as well as nonsensical exclamations such as "boo-ya-ka-ka" — as the only holdover at the judges' table. (He's cheap.) "Evil HostBot" Wayne Shoreline, a workaholic master of timing and "functioning psychopath" so coldblooded he's said to eat puppies, is also staying on.
Two new judges will join the show: Bibi Vasquez (her big hit: "Bibi From the Hood"), a glamorous dancer-actress-singer-entrepreneur in need of a career restart, and 62-year-old recovering-addict rock star Joey Lovecraft, who is trying to get back at (or back with) his band for abandoning him after he injured himself in a humiliating onstage accident.
If these characters don't sound familiar, you're clearly not an "American Idol" watcher, and "Elimination Night" probably isn't a book for you. Apart from its reality-TV rubbernecking appeal, this slight, satirical take on a remarkably long-standing pop-culture phenomenon likely isn't funny or entertaining or well-written enough to stand on its own.
If, however, you're ticking off the names Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, Ryan Seacrest, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler in your head, you may find yourself tempted to troll this send-up for "Idol" secrets spilled by the author, purportedly a show insider. In that case, you may not be disappointed — though you might be confused. It's often difficult to tell which of the fictional story's reality-show details are straightforward revelations about "Idol" in general and which are exaggerations for satire's sake.
The story focuses on junior-level producer Sasha King, whose higher-ups call her "Bill" to prove how interchangeable she is with the man she has replaced. Sasha has literary aspirations; she's working the gig to save up to join her surfer-bartender boyfriend in Honolulu and spend a year writing a Novel of Immense Profundity, of which she has thus far written only two lines.
The book has a fair amount of problems — alarmingly on-the-nose dialogue, insignificant character growth, low stakes (do we really care whether the show gets canceled?). But its worst trait may be its apparent lack of imagination. Some of the scenes we see unfold on the page are nearly identical to those we saw unfold on our TV screens during Lopez and Tyler's first season on "Idol." If that lends a sense of authenticity, it can also make the book seem limited and stale.
On the other hand, the book's fictional (but perhaps not fictional) backstage details — "inspired by real people and events" and "so accurate" as to have compelled the author to write them anonymously, according to press materials — may, if true, confirm some "American Idol" viewers' suspicions about the show.
Did Lopez and Tyler, like their fictional alter egos Bibi and Joey, engage in a backstage ego battle? Did Lopez's handlers, like Bibi's, put forth a 78-page contract rider forbidding the crew from making eye contact and requiring that her body be insured for $1 billion? Did they also employ cue cards, hand signals and professional screenwriters to feed her lines? Did Tyler, like Joey, let his famously undisciplined libido lead him into, er, compromising positions with contestants? Who knows? But certainly, many of the book's juicy bits don't seem that hard to swallow.
The book's depiction of the "Project Icon" audition process — again, if true — may provide its most interesting insights: the brisk thinning of the herds by prejudges, the fate-determining secret coding on the tickets that contestants carry, the deliberate selection of anyone who looks like "a crier or a psycho" or those with "a good gimmick" like a "dying kid, mom in prison, amusing facial tic," the shrewd manipulation of contestants' emotions.
That last one is particularly sad. But then, we may never know whether "Idol," like its fictional doppelganger, sets out to confuse and demoralize its contestants — telling bad contestants they're great and good contestants they're bad — before sending them in to face the judges, to heighten the drama when they learn their fate. Or whether the "Idol" producers, like those on the faux "Icon," conspire to further humiliate contestants whose dreams have been crushed by sending them to doors that won't open, only to find a camera thrust in their face when they finally find a working exit and, emerging, break down.
I suppose that wouldn't really come as such a surprise. But at the end of the day, we can put only so much stock in a satirical work of fiction by an anonymous author. After all, Ryan Seacrest probably doesn't eat puppies … right?
Reiter recaps "American Idol" and other singing-competition TV series for The Times.