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 serious.
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 them funnier.
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.