“I been famous since I was twelve,” opines our teen pop star narrator at the start of Famous People. “The thing about being famous for so long is that like, you never really hang with any normal people anymore, because it’s just weird for everybody.”
Despite this assertion, Famous People (Henry Holt) is a novel about normal people, or at least people who consider themselves to be normal. Sure, they’re famous musicians, reality TV stars and controversial authors, but none of them are particularly unusual. They each have the same capacity for heartbreak, for disappointment, for disillusionment.
The unnamed narrator, a Top 40 icon, remarks that the only difference between him and an ordinary person plucked from the sidewalk is that the world wasn’t made for someone like him. The nature of fame makes his presence anywhere an event. It’s hard to have relationships and know definitively whether he’s speaking with sycophants or people who actually like him, respect him and think he’s funny. He’s a totally normal guy, he insists. It’s the fame that makes him unusual.
An unusual narrator usually lends itself to unusual narration, as is the case here. Debut author Justin Kuritzkes tells the pop star protagonist’s story chronologically, albeit in a stream-of-consciousness comprised of staccato nonsequiturs. Background information on the narrator’s parents and on-again off-again girlfriend is drip-fed to the reader and he even acknowledges withholding important pieces of the story so he doesn’t get ahead of himself.
This novel, presented as the rough draft of a memoir to be assembled, may lack section or chapter breaks, yet the narrator imposes, either intentionally or by some happy accident, a loose structure to divide the events of his life and career. In the novel’s universe, he’s released three albums with a fourth forthcoming.
The first album (and era in his life) represents his beginnings as an artist with his father as his manager. The second album represents his falling out with his father, and the third follows him attempting to know the man who gave him life.
This novel succeeds in part because it’s not trying to provide commentary on the music industry or mental health or even the lives of the ultra-wealthy (all of the eponymous Famous People). It’s a matter-of-fact decade in the life of a privileged guy who’s had some less-than-stellar things happen to him.
The narrator has shades of Justin Bieber, while his girlfriend Mandy is an obvious Ariana Grande stand-in. Their image and decisions and personal lives are massaged and molded by managers and producers, and by their early twenties, neither of them know how they wound up where they are.
Kuritzkes’ earnestness writing as this teen idol, combined with the minimal description of events and surroundings make this story feel real. Supporting characters such as washed-up has-been grunge rocker Chris Jeffries and superfan Oddvar from Norway populate a minimal world where things happen, often without significant consequence, and the narrator believably moves on to the next show.
He wonders throughout the novel (again, a memoir in-universe) whether he can step away from success one day and just be a normal person. It’s hard to tell. The world really wasn’t made for someone like him, but for two hundred or so pages, the narrator lets us hang out in his world, and while it’s anything but normal, I really enjoyed my time there.
Famous People is now available for purchase.
About Justin Kuritzkes
Justin Kuritzkes was born in Los Angeles and lives in New York. Productions of his plays have been staged by the New Group, JACK and Actors Theatre of Louisville. He is known on the internet for his Potion Seller video and for his pop album Songs About My Wife. He has been awarded residencies from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony and the Edward F. Albee Foundation. This is his first novel.