A Much, Much Darker Palette: Zinta Aistars on Temporary People by Steve Gillis

Temporary People, Steve Gillis, Black Lawrence Press


Years ago, I saw the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show about a man whose entire life, unbeknownst to him, played out on a movie stage while the rest of the world watched. Steven Gillis’s novel, Temporary People, reminded me of that movie only with a much, much darker palette of colors. Add a touch of the surreal and you have Gillis, aptly likened to Kurt Vonnegut.

Temporary People is called a fable by the author in the first pages of his story. In this tale, the island of Bamerita, floating unattached some 2,000 miles south of Iceland, has become a movie set directed by the madman, Teddy Lamb (aka the General):
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 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.’
Under this guise of movie making, Teddy rules as a slaughtering dictator would, doing so with a perverted sense of humor. Madness, if you will. The previous government officials are filmed as they are tied to logs, and then pulled in two, set to float on the ocean waves. The population of Bamerita falls quietly into place after that until, of course, they rise to revolt as any population given time and wearing away of patience with brutality will. A crew of “actors” (i.e. citizens) takes the lead with characters such as Andre Mafante, an insurance salesman who tries to promote non-violent means of revolt, and his friend, Emilo, whose rebelliousness culminates in sewing his own ears, eyes, and mouth shut. One of Gillis’s most disturbing scenes is when Teddy torments Emilo into unwilling laughter and pained screams, effectively tearing up his stitched mouth into meaty shreds.

The satire is effective. Gillis is successful in painting madness—the irrational behavior of an oppressive government, the mass fear in response, and the distortion of reality that taking away basic liberties must involve when one manipulates many. If this echoes current political scenarios, it should. In his characters, Gillis illustrates different forms of resistance and rebellion—indifference, self-serving cowardice, passive and active resistance, heroic if perhaps misguided protest and bloody coups—with of all of it done with a touch of Hollywood.