July 2016 NYRB Book

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe - D G Compton

Most, if not all, of us have seen part of or even a whole episode of a reality show.  Even though of us that avoid the Real Housewives series like the plague have watched shows on HGTV, a cooking show, or even a show like Deadliest Catch.  Whether or not we still watch them is a different story, but odds are you have seen part of a reality show sometime.  At their best, reality shows are educational – cooking show for instance, or blended with competition – like say some cooking shows or the Amazing Race.  At their worst, reality shows reveal the lowest common denominator of human existence.  It is not just the people who go on such programs (though why a father who goes on a show like the Bachelor isn’t considered unfit, I don’t know), but the audience as well. 


                At some level, people watch reality programs to feel superior, to judge, to feel better about their lives.  I may not be rich like so-so but at least my children are not spoiled brats and so on.  At times, the audience may feel empathy, but that sense of superiority is usually present.  What is worse, because the term cast is used to describe those on reality shows, there is a belief that everything about them should be made common knowledge.


                Even more damning in today’s age of social media that is starting to be true about everyone.   At times, I am amazed at what some people post on sites like Face book.  I don’t understand why the minute someone leaves home they have to tweet about how they just got on the bus.  Who cares?  Eventually, because people are human, the tweeter is going to do something stupid.  Watch out for the human sharks then.  People start to complain about the lack of privacy (and some of us joke at it, I sometimes use a network called NSA surveillance), yet, the more I think about it, it seems my friend is right as well.  It is both a lack of privacy, but also a lack of empathy.


                I hated shows like Funniest Home Videos because for every truly funny cat or dog video, there was a video of someone with toilet paper stuck to his/her bum dancing at a wedding.  Why didn’t the recorder tell the person?  Why when someone falls, everyone pulls out camera so to record but does nothing?  I can understand if there is gunfire, but surely helping the person out of the fountain would be the empathic thing to do.  We are do embarrassing and not so nice shit.  What gives anyone the right to broadcast us at a stupid moment?  It isn’t even just letting the man die outside the 7-11 or in the street; it’s not helping the woman who crashed her bike.  I’m not talking about “snitching” for that is a whole host of issues; I just mean common empathy and politeness.  Holding the door open, saying thank you or good morning.  Not rushing to judgment.


                Which in many ways is what this book is about.


                Written in the 70s, the Continuous Katherine describes a society that is not to far removed from our own.  There have been reality “stars” that have died on television.  In this book, one woman doesn’t want to die in public but in private.  The media and its viewership does not want to let her do that, and in fact, the media has an ace up its sleeve.  A certain network has discovered a very interesting way to use cameras.  What then follows is a critical look at both media and the society that consumes it. 


                The book does have its flaws.  There is a road trip that goes on a bit too long, though it also includes a good bit about class and underclass.    There are a couple of sequences that while the reader will understand why they are there, the novel could have also done without them. 


                The most brilliant aspect of the novel is the use of two primary narrative points of views – Katherine’s and a reporter’s.


                One of the most well crafted aspects of the novel is the use of empathy or to be more exact the use of lack of empathy.  This is something that Katherine herself at the start of the novel has.  She isn’t described as the iconoclast or the rebel.  She is simply a person, a cog.  She is normal.  She is every day.  The story might under fold a slightly different way were she a he, after all society does judge the genders differently.  The empathy theme is used most wonderfully and thought provoking with the use of the public, those that consume the media.  After all, the media needs us.  If we are going to blame the media for what we are, Compton seems to be saying, we must remember our role in it as well.  Not only that but how those around a person respond to such fame.


                Of course, the book is also about how we respond to death.


                Seriously, this book will make you think and it is still timely.