Survivor: The Novel 

What happens when the inventor of a reality show gets voted off his own fake island?

Former Nashvillian Jeff Havens’s debut novel, Reality, opens with a protagonist who suddenly appears to develop an entirely justified case of self-loathing.

by Fernanda Moore

Former Nashvillian Jeff Havens’s debut novel, Reality, opens with a protagonist who suddenly appears to develop an entirely justified case of self-loathing: “It was during his fourth visit to the set of Last Man Standing that Trent Tucker realized how much he hated reality TV.” Its first week on the air, Last Man Standing surpassed Survivor: Bikini Atoll as the world’s most watched show, but for Trent there’s no succor in success when success is predicated on idiocy. Surely that opinion is eventually shared by everyone who actually works in reality television, which makes this novel a kind of meta-reality show—a reality novel about a reality show that somehow turns into reality itself. Got that?

Trent works for Nova Creative Consulting, “a think tank for the networks, the source of some of the most innovative ideas in Reality Television, like last year’s smash success, Gangland Romance.” When the novel opens, Trent’s job consists mainly of preventing his contestants from, say, stealing local bananas as they pretend to eke out an existence on a faux-deserted island. Like the show’s fans, Trent has till now willfully suspended disbelief: “After all, reality had never been a terribly important component of reality TV.” Unfortunately, Trent’s newfound disdain for the genre doesn’t stem from sudden existential understanding, but from a wildly inflated sense of his own significance (“Why did he have to put up with this? Hemingway wouldn’t have put up with this”) and a nagging fear that he’s failed to live up to his potential: “I didn’t go to Stanford to explain to terminal halfwits like Gary why he couldn’t have any goddamn bananas,” Trent pouts to his co-worker Max. “Is this really all it is?”

Well, no, Trent, it’s not. Because after the reader is introduced to a series of characters straight out of Central Casting—ladies and gentlemen, meet Taylor the harlot, Todd the angry black man, Rachel the taskmistress, Tad the flamboyant homosexual and Max the slick Sicilian—and allowed to eavesdrop on a few outrageous brainstorming sessions, the fun begins. A Nova meeting that lasts all of two pages brilliantly charts the progression from television innocence (“I like puppies”) to experience (“Extreme Animal Lovers, it’ll put Fear Factor right out of business! Who’s gonna watch people eat bugs when they could see ’em fuck cattle instead?”). Havens may be shooting fish in a barrel here, but he does so with consummate skill.

When Trent pitches a reality show on organ transplants designed to redeem the artistic and moral integrity of reality shows, only to be shot down by his boss, he’s sent to scout locations for the latest spin-off—you guessed it, Last Woman Standing. That’s when life in this novel suddenly begins to imitate art, if Survivor: Bikini Atoll qualifies as art. After their helicopter pilot drops dead on a real desert island, the entire crew—Trent, Tad, Taylor and Todd—is suddenly stranded, just like on TV! Trent tries to take charge while fuming at everyone else’s incompetence, while Todd, who doesn’t feel like fetching water, wonders, “Did you assign that to me because I’m black?” Taylor, meanwhile, sulks about breaking a nail and threatens to vote Trent off the island. Tad, naturally, views the whole catastrophe as a lark. “You can get leaves for the roof! Big ones! Oh, it’ll be just like a sleepover!” (Can’t tell these characters apart? Worry not: they helpfully address each other by name every other line, and are never more than a few sentences away from an identifying stereotypical detail or two.)

Of course Havens is making a point, or several, but it’s hard not to wish he’d chosen sharper instruments. Around the campfire that night, Trent’s disenchantment plummets to its predictable nadir: “We’re turning people into a bunch of mindless, stupid, drooling, sniping idiots,” he rants, to collective disinterest. “We’re glorifying spitefulness and stupidity, avarice and selfishness. We’re hastening the decline of civilization as we know it, and we’ve got to stop.” Meanwhile, his bored colleagues half-heartedly pitch show concepts (“Incest...now that’s something we haven’t tried yet!”) before slipping off to have sex without Trent.

Poor Trent. His depressing ambivalence seems to infect the text itself, and Havens’ novel begins to suffer from an identity crisis of its own.

Is the book aiming for satire? At first it seems so: Trent is probably too young to remember the fictional Chauncey Gardiner, whose trajectory in Being There he unconsciously mimics after his rescue. (Still smarting from sexual rejection, he tries to torpedo his career and is instantly promoted.) But the tirade that gets Trent’s boss’s attention doesn’t expose anything about the industry per se—Trent simply pitches the worst idea he can think of, and—surprise!—it catches on. And Trent himself doesn’t change a whit—once he’s in the catbird seat, he becomes more “idealistic” than ever.

In part two, a strange plot heats up that involves Trent’s boss, a mysterious rival media mogul, the FCC and a possible murder or two. Perhaps, then, the book is meant to be a thriller? But no, that murder plot, such as it is, quickly gives way to another murder plot—which our heroes do their bungling best to prevent. So could the book possibly be a farce? Unlikely: The increasing trust between Trent and his hapless sidekicks suggests that Havens’ novel might be, at base, a heartwarming meditation on friendship, loyalty and the soul-shattering consequences of selling out.

Turns out these are all red herrings. Thanks to an extremely surprising plot twist at the end—one which ties up all the loose ends in the only way possible—Reality gives the slip to its readers and its main character in a single, shocking, satisfying scene. On the other hand, it may leave readers who actually enjoy shows like Survivor cringing with guilt. To misquote Otto von Bismarck, “Reality shows are like sausages—it’s better not to see them being made.”

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