Ben Greenman is an editor at The New Yorker and the author of several works of fiction. His latest book is “Celebrity Chekhov.”
My new book is some kind of weird circus clown, if a circus is a writer’s desk and a clown is a man who cuts off his own foot and drinks blood from the ankle. To be more precise: After a number of books of serious (though sometimes funny) fiction, I had an idea to do an entire book of the stories of Anton Chekhov, with the original characters ripped rudely out and replaced by contemporary celebrities. There are many reasons for this (having to do with the way we process celebrity, the way we process literature, the way we build a fence between “serious” and “trivial” without really thinking through the reasons for protecting that border), but I won’t get into them here. All I’ll say is that I love Chekhov’s stories, and as I read through them, I was struck again by how perfectly he captures crucial moments in human interaction. I started out thinking he was a kind of photographer — the scenes are so perfectly etched — and ended up thinking he was a kind of pop songwriter. He zeroes in on moments, and while his stories go by quickly, they stay in your mind forever. In light of that, I thought it would be nice to find popular songs that harmonize with each of the stories — or, rather, each of the pairs, Chekhov’s original and my celebritized remake.
1) Old Friends, Simon and Garfunkel. The Chekhov story “Fat and Thin” is about a man who comes back to his hometown after a successful career. He meets an old acquaintance who has stayed in town and become a husband and father. The men grapple with pride and envy. (In my story, “Tall and Short,” Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie make up the pair.) “Old Friends,” a nice portrait of aging, springs to mind immediately. “How terribly strange to be 70,” the narrator says, imagining that he has moved through the years with his friend (or lover). Now that Paul Simon is almost 70, we’ve seen that his friendship with Art Garfunkel is far more problematic, more like Chekhov’s friends (or my Paris and Nicole) than a peaceful pair on a park bench.
2) Superstar, Lydia Murdock. In “A Transgression,” a collegiate assessor is returning from work when he runs into a maid who berates him for his dalliances with young girls. Upon arriving home, he finds a baby on his doorstep. Understandably, he panics. I won’t say what happens next — only that it’s comic and tragic and manic and melancholy. After its celebrity translation, the story became a fantasia about David Letterman, who was in the news last year for his relationships with staff members, and who went on the air and made his misbehavior explicitly, compellingly public. The ideal song here, the archetype of paternity pop, is of course Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” but everyone and their mother knows that song, so I went instead for “Superstar,” Murdock’s disco answer song, from 1983, in which the singer takes the role of the spurned lover.
3) He Stopped Loving Her Today, George Jones. Chekhov begins “A Lady’s Story” with a simple memory: “Nine years ago Pyotr Sergeyitch, the deputy prosecutor, and I were riding towards evening in hay-making time to fetch the letters from the station.” I don’t know if “hay-making time” is a euphemism for lovemaking in either Russian or in the original English translation, but the story blossoms into a moving memory of youth and beauty, and how both drain away. In my version, I took out the narrator, Natalya Vladimirovna, and put in Britney Spears. Pyotr Sergeyitch became Justin Timberlake. Britney/Natalya ages, feels dragged along by time. “My father is dead,” she says. “I have grown older; everything that delighted me, caressed me, gave me hope — the patter of the rain, the rolling of the thunder, thoughts of happiness, talk of love — all that has become nothing but a memory.” Only one song is that sad: Jones’s immortal country weeper. The circumstance in the song is different — the villain carries a scythe rather than an hourglass — but there’s the same mix of small-scale happiness and profound regret. In fact, when I was (re)writing “A Lady’s Story,” I listened to this song over and over again, for inspiration.
4) Holding Out for a Hero, Bonnie Tyler. Chekhov’s “In the Graveyard” begins where it says it begins, in a graveyard. It’s windy and the sun is going down. Soon enough, the narrator and his friends see a man walking among the tombstones. He’s in a shabby overcoat, carrying a bottle and some sausage, and he asks to be taken to the grave of the actor Mushkin. His reasons for wanting to visit the grave, as the story comes to explain, are highly vexed. In my story, the man is gone, and Mushkin is gone; in their place are the comedians Artie Lange and Andy Kaufman (and there’s even a cameo by Bernard Herrmann). For a story about heroes and role models, there’s no better song than “Holding Out for a Hero.” Sing along with me: “Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?” If anyone names a band (or, better, a child) “Streetwise Hercules,” I will send that person one hundred dollars.
5) Is She Really Going Out With Him?, Joe Jackson. “At the Barber’s” is a fantastically condensed story about a young barber. He is working one day when an older man comes into the shop. He begins to cut the man’s hair and to chat, and it transpires that the man’s daughter is engaged to marry. Normally, this would be cause for celebration, but the barber confesses he’s in love with the daughter and has long hoped to marry her. I left the barber as a young barber — you can’t trim everything — but changed the older man to the famous-haired Billy Ray Cyrus, which by extension changed the young woman to Miley Cyrus. Joe Jackson’s greatest hit is the one song that belongs with this story, and it attests to the universality of the theme.
6) Lonely at the Top, Randy Newman. In “An Enigmatic Nature,” a beautiful woman in a first-class railway car appeals to a young author sitting next to her; she beseeches him to write about her life, her passions, her suffering. Above all, she says, she has suffered from wanting happiness, but never quite being able to attain it. Men, and specifically how she reacts to them, have been her obstacle. In celebritizing this story, I decided to go in the other direction and pick someone whose progress has rarely been impeded by men: Oprah Winfrey. The challenge then became to understand what might bedevil her, how someone who has unlimited power feels as though she may be sinking even as she rises. “Lonely at the Top” became another song I listened to for inspiration. Newman wrote it with Frank Sinatra in mind, and when Sinatra declined to sing it, it became a brilliantly ironic piece for Newman himself, who was at the time toiling as a cult favorite.
7) Everybody’s Happy Nowadays, Buzzcocks. At the end of my book, I tried something even more ambitious (or foolish) than rewriting individual Chekhov stories: I rewrote Chekhov’s Little Trilogy, a series of stories featuring the same main characters, Burkin and Ivan Ivanovitch. The two men oversee “The Man in a Case,” “Gooseberries” and “About Love,” which together produce a complex nested narrative about the nature of love and happiness. “The Man in a Case” is about a man who doesn’t embrace life and so must exit it. “About Love” is about star-crossed lovers. The middle story, “Gooseberries,” is probably my favorite Chekhov story, because it’s at once so sympathetic and so unforgiving. Ivanovitch narrates, and it’s about his brother, Nikolay, and how he wasted most of his adult life in pursuit of a goal that, while it made him happy, may have neutralized the entire notion of happiness. It ends in a pained cry for youth. I won’t insult the story by summarizing it too glibly — I’ve already insulted it by populating it with Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler. What I will do, as apology, is pair it with “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays,” a perfect pop song that’s every bit the equal of that perfect story.