April 5, 2018
Cameos in works of fiction: Novel idea or novelty?
by Michael Barron
Hey so like, you may have heard that more actors are publishing novels these days. Maybe some of you read Sean Penn’s Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff. In fact, maybe an even smaller number of you kinda of liked it. Hey, I’m not judging. Read whatever the hell you want. And if you like novels written by actors, you may be interested in one-time Sopranos star and longtime screenwriter Michael Imperioli’s debut novel The Perfume Burned His Eyes.
A bit about the book. It’s a bildungsroman set in New York. Joyce Carol Oates blurbed it. Oh, and Lou Reed—yes, that Lou Reed, our Lou Reed—is a “prominently” featured character. That’s at least the adverb Parade magazine’s MB Roberts used when describing the book in an interview with Imperioli, who said of fictionalizing the famous rocker:
“I met [Reed] around 1999 or 2000 so he wasn’t the crazy druggie that he was in the 70s, but it was fun spending time with him in that imaginary sense. It did bring me some kind of comfort. What I tried to do in the book, despite his living this pretty crazy life and consuming a lot of chemicals, [was to show that] there was still the artist and there was still a human being. A kindness beneath all that stuff. Despite the volatility that there was a compassion and the kindness and I think as he got older and he slayed some of those demons, compassion and kindness became much more dominant in his personality.”
Imperioli isn’t the first writer to bring real life people into works of fiction. Jay Leno is spotted entering a casino in The Mirror Thief; Steven Spielberg makes a cameo taking a urinal piss in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am. Crude, but true. Nor is Reed the first musician to be an active character in a novel. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy is a minor but integral figure in Francesco Pacifico’s Class.
Pacifico told me in an interview for the website Culture Trip:
“I wanted to have a character who was a novelist from the generation (Wallace, Eggers, Franzen) that was so influential on the Italian authors from my generation. Then I picked that name because, I don’t know, I felt it was a sweet mental short circuit. Murphy is a philosopher and a classy individual, and he has taught us a lot about navigating this age, I think. It feels nice that I started the book the exact month they did those five ‘final’ shows at Madison Square Garden (I didn’t attend, I hate trying to get tickets to events), and it’s coming out in the US when they announce the new album is coming and they’ve just released two great new songs…”
It sounds like Reed’s appearance in Imperioli’s book is of a similar frivolity. It may be fun to some, distracting to others. But does it serve any literary purpose? I mean, sure, just like having New York in a novel gives many a writer a tangible stage to pivot off into their imagination. And while it’s not hard to think up a troubled rock star from scratch as Don DeLillo and Jennifer Egan have both done, it’s arguable that a real-life celebrity is simply more interesting to toy with. At least it seems that way.
Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.