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10.19.10

Chekhov Meets Paris Hilton

In his new story collection Ben Greenman inserted modern day celebrities into the short stories of the Russian master. He explains just what he was up to and why Kim Kardashian belongs in 19th-century Russia.

My new book, Celebrity Chekhov, is an homage and a travesty. Even calling it "my new book" is oddly inaccurate; it's a project that I directed more than I wrote. In the book, I redeploy almost two dozen of the short stories of the Russian master Anton Chekhov, replacing his characters with contemporary American celebrities, from Britney Spears to Lindsay Lohan, from Jay-Z to Larry King. At times, there’s a method to the madness, and the celebrities slot nicely into Chekhov’s plots; a story about a young man who is excited to find his name in the newspaper for public drunkenness is reupholstered as a story about Kim Kardashian and her famed sex tape. Other times, there’s a madness to the method: is “The Man in the Case,” a sublime story of psychological limitations, really, at any level at all, clarified or enriched by the inclusion of Jon Lovitz?

The project had its unholy birth a few years ago, when I was talking to a friend about canonical authors and their most famous characters. I brought up Chekhov. She narrowed her eyes. “There are famous characters in the plays, sure,” she said. “The stories, not so much.”

I asked around, and most people shared her view. Compared to Shakespeare or Dickens or Hemingway or Bellow, Chekhov’s short stories were widely read but remembered more subtly. Part of the reason was the translations, which could be stuffy; the settings tended to hold readers at arm's length. But part of the reason was the characters, or the way that Chekhov uses them: it’s hard to think of “The Lady with the Dog” as a story about Anna in quite the same way that Moby-Dick is a story about Ahab or Catcher in the Rye is a story about Holden Caulfield. Many times, it's hard to remember the names of the men and women in the stories are; they're easier to remember by type—the young clerk, the middle-aged dowager. They are filled with character, certainly, but they are not exactly characters.

And so, Celebrity Chekhov was born. There is a story of Chekhov's called “Hush” about a young man, Ivan Yegoritch Krasnyhin, who he is described as “a fourth-rate journalist.” Ivan Yegoritch tells his wife that he means to write, and so he goes into a side room in his home. He is distracted. He organizes his desk and reorganizes it. He “hears his wife shuffling about in her slippers.” After a while, a friend comes into the house, causing further distraction. In my version, I removed Ivan Yegoritch, surgically, and replaced him with a young man named Eminem. The wife's named changed to Kim; the friend was now named Dr. Dre.

As American culture becomes more celebrity-driven, we may, collectively, start to lose the ability to see the insides of people.

Remove, replace, let fly: that technique was reapplied to almost two dozen other Chekhov stories, with the result being a collection of short fiction that has celebrities and Chekhov pressed up against one another. How does one thing collude (or collide) with the other? What do the celebrities add or subtract to the literature? Let’s handle the first matter first. It adds many things, in theory. For starters, it adds the present. Whether or not this is a good thing is debatable, which is precisely the point. No one disputes that it is sometimes necessary and energizing to bring Shakespeare into the present day: to set Hamlet on Wall Street, to transplant The Taming of the Shrew to a high school, to move King Lear to a Iowa farm. Literature needs to be translated, not just linguistically, but chronologically. This has happened now and again—there are movies based on Chekhov stories: Douglas Sirk’s Summer Storm (1944), for example, or Iosif Kheifits’s Lady With the Dog (1960)—but this bald celebritization does something slightly different. It asks whether celebrities can function profitably in literature or if they are so trivial and transitory that they erode the qualities that made Chekhov great in the first place.

The answer, I think, lies less in the effect of the celebrities on the stories than that of the stories on celebrities. What are celebrities, broadly speaking? They are people with some talent who are disproportionately rewarded by our culture. They make money. They achieve fame. In return, they are denied inner lives—or rather, the inner lives they likely have are hidden from view. We don’t have access to them, and we don’t want to. This is, I think, more our problem than theirs. As American culture becomes more celebrity-driven, we may, collectively, start to lose the ability to see the insides of people. So maybe it’s not as much that the celebrities are subjected to shabby treatment as the fact that they are, as subjects, treated shabbily.

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Anton Chekhov & Paris Hilton (Newscom; AP Photo)

So do celebrities, when set into the frame of Chekhov's deceptively simple but psychologically acute tales, look different? Paris Hilton is in “Fat and Thin,” grappling with the envy of her closest friend. Artie Lange is in "In the Graveyard," lamenting that he ever turned to comedy. There’s a frantic story about a man whose wife ruins his vacation (“Not Wanted,” with Alec Baldwin), a mordant story about the tragic consequences of a sneeze (“The Death of a Government Clerk,” with Conan O’Brien), and an character study of an aging woman who feels she has never really been understood (“An Enigmatic Nature,” with Oprah Winfrey). The effect is funny, both comic and strange.

Sometimes at readings, people resist the very idea that celebrities have interiors; "A Lady's Story" is a moving, mournful story about lost youth and fleeting beauty, but when it is told by "Britney Spears," people laugh. Why? Because it's impossible to believe that the real Britney Spears struggles to keep up with the passage of time, introspects, articulates? Or because we suddenly find ourselves wondering whether, in fact, it might be true?

Some characters from literature, of course, suffer from the same flattening as contemporary celebrities. We know this process well through Disney films aimed at children: Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Mowgli. But the same is true of characters who have, as a result of their fame, become icons: Hamlet, Tom Sawyer, Lolita. There's a Blackberry commercial that demonstrates how a user can employ the device to learn about "Moby-Dick"; it mentions the music star Moby and shows a clip from the cartoon "Jimmy Neutron," but manages to almost entirely avoid any mention of Herman Melville's text. Chekhov’s particular genius, as I have said, ensures that his characters resist being flattened in this way, in part because they are not immediately memorable in the same way. Not only have his characters resisted being emptied out by the passage of time, but his stories overflow with character that can be poured into supposedly empty vessels: like, say, contemporary celebrities.

But if part of the project is to restore depth to contemporary celebrities—and by extension, perhaps, to the broader culture they dominate—does it deplete Chekhov’s depth? A good question, but not mine to answer. Authors are not supposed to be the primary explicators of their own work. A book is supposed to stand or fall on its own. But what if it stands by falling? This book is a satire in (and of) 2010, an unconcluded investigation into why famous names are always on our lips, but over time, the satirical charge the book carries will dissipate, or at least change. In fifty years, or eighty, Justin Timberlake or Kim Kardashian will be largely forgotten, and then those names, “Justin Timberlake” or “Kim Kardashian,” will just be characters again, a man and a woman living in Chekhov's sharp-eyed, deeply felt world, without any of the celebrity associations. These versions of the stories will melt away into the originals. Chekhov’s work will return to him. In the end, he’ll win, and that's just how it should be.

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Ben Greenman is an editor at The New Yorker and the author of several acclaimed books of fiction, including Superbad, Please Step Back, and the new What He's Poised To Do. He lives in Brooklyn.