By Charles Rammelkamp
Jennifer Juneau’s debut novel is a real riot. A mash-up of reality television shows – principally cooking competitions a la Gordon Ramsey, but with a nod to Survivor as well as disaster movies – the novel also confronts the eternal questions, does art imitate life, does life imitate art, does art imitate art imitating life… or, more succinctly, what is reality? The possibilities seem reflected endlessly back on one another as in a funhouse mirror. Indeed, the fun, zany plot of ÜBERCHEF USA is exactly like being caught in a funhouse mirror!
Related in the first person by one of the contestants, Greta Gupenheimer, the novel is told in twelve “episodes,” as befits a TV show. In the first, the audition, Greta explains her motivation to Maggie, a waitress at the Corner Diner. Friendless, obviously viewing the other contestants as competition, Greta comes to regard Maggie as a confidante. (“The Corner Diner had been like a home. Maggie, a mother.”) In the diner after the audition, Greta confesses to Maggie: “I can’t even cook.”
“Why enter a cooking contest to begin with?”
“Because making a fool out of myself on TV is easy money.”
So true! Remember the free Frigidaire contestants used to get on The Newlywed Game for humiliating confessions about the first time they “made whoopee”?
“The world would be depressed without television,” Maggie soothes her elsewhere. Greta is a starving artist, a painter, broke, about to lose her New York apartment for failing to make rent – it’s one of the reasons she’s come to LA to participate. Greta’s specialty? Eggs and toast. Not an auspicious start, but Greta has pluck. Through her eyes we meet the judges and the other contestants. She has a funny way of sizing things up that makes the reader smile. “Looking at Bud was like looking at a vending machine full of junk food,” she tells us, describing another contestant.
As is true of the format of all “reality” competitions, there are three judges. But these guys are more like the Three Stooges – Slick, Gram (later, “Gramb”) and Chef Crank, who is the “Moe” of these stooges. They are constantly bickering, cutting each other down, belittling the contestants, throwing them curveballs. All that’s missing is the fingers in the eye – and maybe that’s not really missing!
After the ten contestants are chosen, the cookoffs begin with seafood. Only, the contestants have to go out and catch their fish. Greta observes that her “fish looked like a worn-out tennis shoe.” Then, when they are back in the janky studio to prepare their dishes, they discover that behind the wall of their soundstage, the soap opera that’s being taped on the adjacent set is audible. A woman, Jane, is about to be stabbed “fifty times in the heart” by somebody. John? Of course, the contestants and judges become absorbed in the soap opera as the novel progresses and characters like the wealthy Drina Sanchez appear (“Her voice was like a long, black cigarette holder. Long black gloves.”). Did Jane die? The contestants argue back and forth among each other as viewers of soap operas often do.
“I bet John and his lover are in it together.”
“No, the girl in the hospital bed was an imposter.”
“It’s obvious that John hacked up Jane and flushed her down the toilet.”
“Jane was sucked into some vortex.”
The fact that nobody can actually see the soap opera actors underscores the whole notion of “reality” that’s so potent in this novel. (The epigraph to ÜBERCHEF USA comes from Academy-award-winning director Steven Soderbergh: “Reality shows are all the rage on TV at the moment … but that’s not reality, it’s just another aesthetic form of fiction.”) Listening to the dialogue behind the wall, they are like the blind men and the elephant in the parable.
The next episode, after the Nurse is eliminated, is a spoof on Survivor. The contestants are divided into two teams and go out into the wilderness with guns. They are going to prepare a dish centered around a yellow-bellied marmot, and they are preparing the meal for monkeys. In episode four, it’s ice cream cones for clowns at a circus. In episode five they go to Italy. One contestant is eliminated after each episode.
But just when you think you may have the plot figured out, a countdown to the winner, American Idol-style, think again. Just as the three remaining contestants prepare for their next challenge, in episode eleven – preparing the favorite childhood treat of one of the three judges (all dressed as children, Chef even wearing a cap with a propeller) – “reality,” the soap opera and the cooking competition all collide and mix like a spilled plate of spaghetti. Indeed, as Greta observes, “What happened next could not have been more surreal had the scene been an online video definition of the word ‘surreal.’” A group of terrorists from the “real world,” disguised as animals, invades the set…and that’s as much of the plot as I’m giving away.
Along the way, we are introduced to a variety of colorful screwball eccentrics, like the celebrity guests blind Helen and the vegan Agave. The Lighting Director, the Cameramen, Jim and Mike. There are the contestants, Ben Jax whose specialty is tacos, Keri, the precocious thirteen-year-old, and all the others from Bud and Tamara to the Nurse and the Mute, the Zookeeper and the rest. The sponsors? The makers of the cleaning products used on the show, Klootz, Fick, Peedo and Skuzz.
The reader is never sure what’s coming next, but whatever it is is sure to be amusing. And indeed, what’s coming next from Jennifer Juneau? ÜBERCHEF USA is going to be a tough act to follow!
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by Future Cycle Press.