Icons Are People, Too
Author: Scott Erickson
Publication date: 7 September 2019
Publisher: Azaria Press
Reviewer: D C White
Four American icons walk into a bar. Thing is they don’t exactly walk, and this sets in motion an intriguing tale of regret, redemption and an exploration of the American dream. Part self-help book, part surrealist – post-modern novel and part (deliberately) awful script, Icons Are People, Too, by Scott Erickson, places Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain together in a bar. It’s more of a backstage green room where they sit and chat while not appearing in movies or singing on stage, the script of which we see develop as it is written by an unnamed hack. Repulsed by the lines our icons are required to say, they go on four personal journeys of self-discovery.
But where are they? More importantly, why are they? Who are they? Each of them appears to be conjured up not as they were at the point of death, but as they are remembered in America’s collective consciousness. Kurt is gaunt, his hair stained with lime Kool-Aid; Janis wears her “Pearl” persona; Marilyn is the personification of the late 50s/early 60s; while Elvis… Well, he’s harder to track down. He’s not 50s Elvis, he doesn’t appear to be 70s Elvis, and he doesn’t appear to remember Janis the way he remembers Marilyn.
All of them remember their own deaths, and so the major driving force of the narrative is sprung. All—except Elvis—were suicides, but all of them were unhappy. Over the course of the dialogue-driven story, they explore each other’s psyches, delving into the notion of fame. Most importantly, they discuss how their lives had changed because of the fame that has so haunted them.
Along the way we are treated to a look at the American view of celebrity, and the changes it drives in individuals both good and bad. The fame and monumental stardom our four icons achieved is a poisoned chalice. It was what they all wanted, but it was the last thing they needed.
The book explores these themes through the backstory of the script and the green room, which feels like a framing device, with no explanation requested or given. None of our icons ask how they got there (or even appear disoriented). We do not know if they emerged there at the moment of death. They don’t act like people who recently committed suicide or, in the case of Elvis, were grossly overweight and died on a toilet. This lack of inquisitiveness and emotion dehumanises them early in the story, and it is some time before they appear as whole characters. For example, dialogue about complex psychological concepts are discussed in exactly the same way by people from very different periods, educations, and backgrounds. The voices of the four icons are never distinct, which lends the book an air of faint unreality.
Then there’s the bartender, Stephanie, and her insistence on filling the tip jar. While this character tick could be taken as the entreating of a deity to do good, it is never addressed, and the reader is forced to ask some uncomfortable questions: Is there money in the afterlife? Did they bring any with them? All the icons ignore her appeals, and so these questions are left unanswered. As to who Stephanie is, where the bar is, and why… who knows?
Those questions may do nothing more than annoy but are ultimately not relevant. Icons Are People, Too is less a story or narrative and more an exploration into the makeup and psyches of those members of American society who reached for the stars and grabbed them with both hands, hanging on until they prematurely fell. Do not expect intimate portraits of the icons. Erickson warns us in an author’s note that the people in the book—their thoughts, hopes, and dreams—are of his invention, and should not be taken as anything else. Some might say then, why bother? But this is precisely the point of the book—of the myriad of celebrities in America these four were selected. They didn’t have to be Elvis, Marilyn, Janis, and Kurt. The author could have used James Dean, Bruce Lee, Jean Harlow, or Mr Rogers. The icons are interchangeable—the fame is not. It ties them, binds them together into a support group who, even as they bicker over temporal things, understand each other.
Icons Are People, Too takes a bold step in exploring not the people and personalities of the icons contained within its pages… but, rather, of America, of fame as a poisoned chalice, and of the power of self-acceptance and self-knowledge. It is a book that warns of the pitfalls of celebrity, that explores the nature of the psyche, and, ultimately, that affirms the basic humanity in us all. By watching the icons that we think we understand, as they repair their broken lives, Icons Are People, too gives us a better understanding of ourselves.