Fifteen-year-old Jackie Stone adores Jared Stone, her father and an Oregon state senator. She gets on well with her mother, but she has decidedly mixed feelings about her celebrity-struck 13-year-old sister Megan. They’re an all-American family, until Jared consults a neurologist about his headaches, frequent confusion, and memory loss and finds he has an inoperable brain tumor. Given four months to live and fearing for his family’s future financial wellbeing, Jared (presumably in one of his moments of confusion) auctions his life on Ebay.
The results are financially unspectacular, but they draw the attention of Sister Benedict Joan, who wants to save his soul; Hazel, a teenage gamer who wants to save his life; Sherman Kingsborough, a billionaire who wants to murder him; and Ethan Overbee, a TV producer who recognizes the situation’s potential. Ever the entrepreneur, Overbee visits Jared and offers him five million dollars in return for making reality TV out of his last months. Jared agrees. The rest of the book presents the life Overbee’s reality TV inflicts upon the Stones.
The story is told from various points of view, including that of Glio (short for glioblastoma multiforme), the brain tumor that relentlessly devours Jared’s memories, muscular control, and eyesight. The horror of Glio’s gleeful depredations is balanced by the satiric portrayal of Overbee’s intrusive reality show, which attracts millions of viewers (among them the three people attracted to the original EBay post).
But Overbee has reckoned without Jackie, hitherto a shy girl, but now a warrior determined not to let her father’s degeneration be exaggerated and distorted for public consumption. With the help of her Russian Facebook correspondent Max, she produces a counter video on YouTube, revealing the truth of a family subject to Overbee’s tyranny. Due to the long reach of Hazel the gamer, Jackie’s version of the story goes viral. The result is a technological war between Jackie’s friends and Overbee, who in desperation calls in Sister Benedict and a fleet of doctors to prolong the TV show by prolonging Jared’s life artificially.
As the above paragraphs suggest, this is not everybody’s book. Black humor is an extremely difficult tone to maintain, especially when it’s concerned with a political issue like the right to die. Too much irony comes off as bad taste; too little humor comes off as a political diatribe. At the very least there are bound to be readers who are not attracted to satirical treatment of terminal cancer.
But “Life in a Fishbowl” is (trust me) an extraordinary achievement. Vlahos manages to satirize reality TV, to present the dark side of people who feed on tragedy to augment their power, to include slap-stick incidents in the power struggle between the villains and the kids – and simultaneously to present an ironic but well-informed, sympathetic, and horrifying portrait of Glio’s destruction of an intelligent man’s brain. It’s a compassionate story of a man and a family striving to maintain integrity and love in the face of the “reality” of television and the internet; its humane undercurrent shines through the darkness of its satire, reminding us of the importance of living, as well as dying, with dignity.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.