Critical Mass

Preview 2008: “Temporary People” by Steven Gillis

By Jane Ciabattari

The following is excerpted from the first chapter of “Temporary People: A Fable,” a novel by Steven Gillis to be published in April 2008 by Black Lawrence Press, which will become an imprint of Dzanc Books as of January 1, 2008. 

The babies' heads are fat as fruit grown ripe beyond all natural measure. I remember the first time I saw one, her woebegone look and swollen scale, with hair stretched out in gossamer patches, as ill-proportioned as an artist's lampoon. Startled, I couldn't help but stare and wonder what had happened. Three months later, as the numbers rose and hinted of an epidemic, the truth came out and to no surprise gave us Teddy Lamb, a.k.a. the General.
In the center of the Plaza, Teddy has built an enormous movie screen, some forty feet high and ninety feet wide. Night and day clips are shown from Teddy's past performances, footage from “General Admission” and the film he's now making. All Bameritans are included in the current cast, are given roles and costumes, our parts and outfits changing constantly. In the last ten months I've been dressed as a pirate, a peasant, and a wealthy industrialist sporting a silver suit and leather briefcase filled with stones. My acting is poor and I make no effort to improve. For many years I've run a small business, selling insurance against terror and graft, an idea I had following the War of the Winds and the death of Tamina.

My thinking was simple. Feeling as I did, as gutted as a road struck deer, I was looking for a way to recover. The policies I created offered coverage against any sort of death or maiming suffered through acts of revolution, governmental gamesmanship or political terror. Teachers and store clerks, day laborers and farmers arrived one by one to discuss my plan. I found a reliable partner to invest the proceeds from premiums, as I knew nothing then and still know little now about handling money. The funds were pooled, the receipts put into international stocks. I took the profits and expanded my business, offered group coverage to private companies, college students and civil servants. With my success I lived comfortably and placed a percentage of my earnings back into the community, helping with schools and charities and such. All of this was easy, an uncomplicated plan, limited in sophistication and–because this is Bamerita–there for others to copy and corrupt. 
The cameras Teddy uses are state of the art and mounted throughout the capital for constant filming. Teddy insists his movie making is for the good of all, the way he observes us and orders us about meant, he says, to bring us closer together. As everyone's on tape, collectively and systematically recorded, the implication of his claim is open to interpretation. He tells us his way of creating films will change how motion pictures are viewed forever. He says he plans to submit his film to all the major festivals where he expects to sell distribution rights for millions of dollars. Few of us care. We've had enough of Teddy and his movie business, have tired of his other schemes and offenses. The sentiment is widespread, and still I worry about the consequence of our discontent and where things will likely go from here.

The scenes for Teddy's movie are shot out of sequence and no one can say for certain what the film's about. Even when the soldiers come and order us into our costumes, we're not shown a script. At best, we hear rumors that the movie's a multi-generational saga weaved through the telling and retelling of a 3,000 year old fable. The focus of the fable changes however, each time the rumor's repeated. Teddy reviews all the daily rushes, assesses the caliber of our performance. Everyone's uneasy about how they appear. The perception we give is not always as intended. Our fear isn't artistic but rather a concern for our safety. In evaluating the scenes, Teddy's impatient with people who disappoint him. Those found deficient are removed from the film and rarely heard from again. “That,” Teddy says, “is show biz.”