The plot of poet Michael Friedman's new
novel, Martian Dawn, unfurls across Hollywood, a biosphere,
a nameless space station, Mars, and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied
Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, all places with an absurdity
quotient significant enough to render serious, dramatic conflict
difficult to sustain. Luckily, Friedman has no interest in anything
Martian Dawn is Friedman's first foray into fiction,
and his slim novel barely contains the large, preposterous cast
of characters. Richard and Julia, a Hollywood power couple, are
a conflation of Richard Gere and Julia Roberts and the characters
they played in Pretty Woman. Within two pages we find out
that, until she met Richard, Julia had been a $500-a-partner hooker,
and Richard, like Gere, is a Buddhist dilettante. From there the
cast quickly balloons to include a team of people living in a biosphere,
a movie producer and his therapist, two astronauts, two cosmonauts,
a pimp, a materialistic Tibetan Buddhist guru-to-the-stars, and
Cap, a writer for Whale Quarterly and a man in love with
Monstro, a whale suffering from cabin fever. Richard and Julia's
new movie, a science-fiction romance called Martian Dawn,
loosely connects all the characters soon enough.
The characters are flimsy, most of them defined only by their monumental
self-absorption, but by embracing the artificiality of the characters
Friedman keeps his screwball comedy giddily propulsive. With a poet's
economy, Friedman's descriptions are sparse and his dialogue
a blithe patter in the vein of mainstream Hollywood comedies. Except
that in Friedman's version of Hollywood, none of the characters'
attempts at cleverness are particularly winning, which only makes
Friedman is fond of injecting stale comedic tropes with a dose
of irony and the absurd. One of Martian Dawn's story
lines involves Walter and his seductress, Svetlana, a "former
model/cosmonaut sex maniac," who is trying to steal him away
from his girlfriend.
"Walter, what is wrong?" she asked.
"This is the operations center, Svetlana. I need to keep my
head in the game."
"That is what you think. This is sex module. Do not try to
fight it, Walter. Do not make me beg."
"Phew! Is it hot in here, or is it just me?" Walter
asked, pulling at his collar with his index finger.
The passage ends with Svetlana intimating that she will have Walter
later and Walter wondering just how was her carbonara sauce. After
all, Svetlana was the author of the cookbook From Borscht to
Crepe Suzette. When she succeeds in seducing Walter, she tells
him to wait while she retrieves something he will like. She returns
wearing a strap-on dildo.
Most of Martian Dawn plays with the conventions of Hollywood
and comedy. The parallels between Richard and Julia and Richard
Gere and Julia Roberts are more than clear. At one point, Richard
tells Julia that she has to earn good roles in the movie business.
He explains, "I didn't just start out in roles as a doctor or lawyer
or businessman. I only graduated to those kinds of roles after earning
my stripes as...a gigolo, for example." It's no coincidence that
one of Gere's first starring roles was in American Gigolo.
By using Pretty Woman, itself a Hollywoodized update of
George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, as inspiration for a book
about Hollywood, Friedman emphasizes that the characters in Martian
Dawn are about as fleshed-out and soulful as the characters
and actors people pay to see on the big screen. The result is a
humorous trifle of a book on par with a clever Shouts and Murmurs
piece from The New Yorker expanded to 149 pages.