About a month ago on the Metro, I recall reading an article in The Washington Post regarding the scientific advance of facial transplant surgery. It literally referred to slicing the face off one person and slapping it on the sanded down face of a patient far beyond the benefits of Botox. While reading it, situations in which one might stroll the streets of New Orleans with a bag over his face for fear of someone stealing it arose as if by reflex. Then it occurred to me how easy it would be for the Department of Motor Vehicles to add “face” to the list of parts a driver is willing to donate upon death.
My musings were in fun, but only because I knew of no other way to deal with the fact that I was completely terrified. In my bag was a novel I had received to review. The night before, I read in it something completely fictional; now it was a viscous reality.
“Frankenrocker” is the novel, and in more ways than one, the rapidly approaching practice of facial transplants is pertinent for my purposes here. For one, the novel’s main protagonist – Lex, a young, tumultuous musician – is kidnapped by the government-controlled entertainment industry Wunderkind to have his face replaced with that of an aging, burnt out rock star he despises named Kip McKool to allow for a “resurrection.” On a broader metaphorical note, this idea of pretty facades hiding a gruesome truth is a theme that resonates within the entire world the author, Gene Ritchings, has designed.
In the form of a delicate weave constructed in such a way to hit like a sledgehammer, the story is placed in a not-so-distant future reminiscent of George Orwell’s “1984,” adding the attitude of Sid Viscous to its main protagonist with the dilemma of Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” to its antagonists. What follows from Lex’s kidnapping is a long period of brainwashing to convince him that he is indeed the musician he hates. The training works, but only temporarily, as Lex soon rediscovers his true identity and still makes the decision to commit to the tour across a riot-torn and suppressed United States. But as is the case in “Frankenstein,” what the doctors did not anticipate is that their creation would grow out of their control and live to threaten and destroy the very livelihood they thought they were helping to preserve.
In a recent Hatchet interview, Ritchings discussed the collection of modern-day events that fueled “Frankenrocker” and the mode in which he hopes it will operate.
“This is a satire. I have targets rather than topics,” Ritchings said. “I ridicule greed, the ‘star is born’ myth, the power struggle between art and commerce, between the person and the celebrity, the hypocrisy of cultural conservatives, the corporatization of rock ‘n’ roll and all popular culture, the police surveillance state now being born and its champions on the political and religious right.”
This amalgamation of targets surprisingly manages to maintain a cogent reality readers can easily interact with; this mainly seems due to the commonality of these targets to the events present in our everyday lives. Acting as a trigger, “Frankenrocker” rekindles the psychological bafflement of events that have lost their shock value because of their abundance. Reading along as the Wunderkind executives placate the masses with complacent entertainment while the media spins and spews doublespeak like a first language incurs immediate feelings of disgust. Putting the book down, one need only turn on a television to see the fictional disgust ignited by the novel confirmed in reality right before their eyes.
“The media was once able to punctuate the falsehoods (of politics) and give the electorate what they needed to make an informed choice,” Ritchings said, relating present reality to the novel. “Now, with the corporatization of media over the last 20 to 25 years, the whole thing has become reversed and the media, to me, have become like mere stenographers for the government … It is image over reality almost entirely.”
This being said, what Ritchings puts forth is not a work fueled by irrational paranoia and delusional conspiratorial beliefs about the present. Rather, with the setting of the novel being formed out of what Ritchings says are his worst fears for the future, it acts as a warning to the population that reads it. Given that shades of our own reality echo throughout its pages, “Frankenrocker” urges a serious contemplation into the importance of an informed citizenry and the horrific possibility that the government, entertainment and media industries may eventually become one in the same.
“Politics has always been about selling and promoting programs, candidates and putting the right faces on things,” Ritchings said. “The whole point of our system is that the government serves by consent of the governed, but if the governed doesn’t have the proper information, their consent is meaningless … The art of citizenship, it seems, is damn near dead, and maybe the media is both a reflection and a cause of that.”
This warning also entails a rather large critique of the corporate world, referencing the entertainment industry of today in order to expand on what it might eventually become. In this future, originality is regarded as a disturbance to the already volatile stability of the country.
“(Record companies today) don’t really start with the premise ‘Let’s see what’s special about this person and see if we can sell it,'” Ritchings said. “I think they start with the premise ‘This person’s got talent. Let’s see what kind of mold we can we use in our own pre-cooked vision of what people will buy.’ And that’s a shame, because rock ‘n’ roll isn’t a movement with that much innovation any more; it’s just another leisure time activity like video games or golf.”
It is precisely this notion of leisure and complacency that the novel warns may allow things to mature into what he fears … where what seems tolerable now may eventually be unstoppable in what may become a Frankenfuture.
Needless to say, “Frankenrocker” presents some dark situations that at times relate so closely to the present day, they can induce a state of panic within the reader. As Ritchings warns, “readers who wish to be told ‘everything’s gonna be all right’ will find no comfort here.”