February 2024

Noted

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

By Helen Elliott
Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’
The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens

Everything is fine. Everything is fine. Everything is fine. These are the final three lines of Delphine de Vigan’s latest novel. The mantra, a masquerade of self-soothing, is spoken by a middle-aged woman whose famous daughter is about to sue her. Bookmark “famous”. Kimmy and her older brother Sammy are suing their mother for their “stolen childhoods”. Their mother was one of the first influencers and is now a vlogger. Incidentally, nothing is fine.

The epigram for this horror novel is from the writer known as the “king of horror”, Stephen King: “We had a chance to change the world but opted for the Home Shopping Network instead”. His words are pertinent rather than cynical. There’s art and artfulness in every aspect of this book. Horror is a useful genre to displace or address our anxieties: we can laugh with relief because this isn’t us.

The brief opening chapter of Kids Run the Show (Europa Editions) ticks into a police transcript of the latest Instagram story posted by a mother, Mélanie, in 2019. Her six-year-old daughter, Kimmy, is buying new sneakers and Mél enlists her followers to help choose by voting online. Mél’s followers are her “Sweeties” or “sweet peas”. The charming Kimmy, who has spent her entire waking life performing on camera for her mother, doesn’t seem to care at all about the sneakers. Or the followers.

The next chapter cuts to back to 2001, as the Claux family – mother, father, two girls – have settled in for a TV night to watch the grand finale of Loft Story, the French version of Big Brother. Although the characters are de Vigan’s, the account of Loft Story is factual. The Claux family agree about who they want to win – the blonde girl with sculpted breasts, tanned skin and a troubled childhood. Mélanie, 17, an ordinary (i.e. volatile and fragile) adolescent, can’t identify the emotion she feels when she is settled in front of the TV, but it could be happiness. Real life for her is on the small screen; watching fame happen in real time vaporises her anxiety.

A few hundred kilometres away, another girl, Clara, just 15, is also watching Loft Story. She’s doing so in secret because her parents, both teachers, both earnestly engaged in making the world a better place, would not want her to watch what they consider rubbish. The Big Brother franchise pioneered being famous simply for being on TV – the transition from being the watcher to the watched, when the adjective ordinary became actively despised. Clara, however, for whatever reasons – family, education, intelligence, critical ability, or perhaps just luck – isn’t mesmerised, or more specifically, isn’t emotionally or mentally massaged (per Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage) into believing that what she is watching is the new century’s key to life.

The two women are destined to meet when Kimmy is kidnapped and Clara is the erudite and moral detective in charge of the case.

De Vigan delivers on horror; there’s no fun to be had here. But she is also a commentator. She presents lives that are constantly on an unstoppable and material run. “Run” has new and specific meaning. The material overlay of living in the 21st century suffocates and blunts details of what once was essential to being human. This fresh bluntedness is in the daily living but its platform is in the hourly watching, in billions of eyes skimming millions of images. The instructions from the accumulated images of strangers now have more meaning than the cultural source of sustained intimacy – family. The fragmentary too-fast style of this novel, where nothing immediately makes a lot of sense, encapsulates the fragmentary too-fast life that we all complain about. Small collisions in real life are tracked, annotated and delivered – scrappy parcels of malignancy.

De Vigan’s pitiless literary collage reassigns time to its cultural and technological moment, splicing purported police transcripts with straight-up narrative and equally straight-up journalism about Loft Story. And a near-future world, where intimacy has become redundant, takes shape – a world where those volatile and fragile kids of all ages do, in fact, run the show. How careless we are of intimacy. The old emotion and ability that went by that word is antique and generally untranslatable. Heart of Darkness, indeed. The horror, the horror.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’

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