William Giraldi’s About Face Is a Surreal Tale of Celebrity Obsession in the Internet Age | BU Today
With his latest novel, about face, William Giraldi wants readers to look more critically at their favorite celebrity influencers (1970s rock stars, on the other hand, are fine).
“The 1970s and ’80s were a very rich and pivotal time for pop culture in the United States and in the UK in terms of music, film and TV,” says Giraldi (GRS’03), a College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program master lecturer “I was interested in how celebrity changed from Mick Jagger to people who became famous on the Internet.”
In About Face (Livewright/WW Norton, 2022), set in Boston, a hapless journalist is accused of profiling a self-help guru with a messianic following. Valentino Face, whose fame arose from a well-timed viral video, is a preternaturally beautiful megacelebrity who came from humble beginnings on the streets of East Boston.
The novel’s journalist-narrator, known only by his pen name, Seger Jovi (a reference to the character and the author’s love of classic rock superstars), initially writes a translation of Face for the small magazine he works for. Face has just arrived in his hometown on a publicity tour, and the piece catches his attention. Surrounded by acolytes, he is intrigued by his only opponent, and decides to hire the young journalist to document his New England self-help tour. Blinded by fame (and ambition), Jovi accepts.
As Jovi moves through Face’s world, he is confronted by a variety of stylists, bodyguards, assistants and assistants-of-assistants, each of whom has grown accustomed to a life of luxury and frivolity. At its center is Face, a charismatic enigma. Against all odds, the two men become fascinated by each other. And, Giraldi tells us, they both grew up in a city that used to revere Puritan preachers like Cotton Mather—perhaps one of the original self-help gurus.
The novel is a surreal comedy of errors, told with Giraldi’s characteristic boldness. Jovi speaks to the reader in a lyrical influence flecked with alliteration, puns, inside jokes and self-aware turns of phrase. (“Coppertone Californians in the fame game, they’ve been teased and trimmed, polished and trimmed, exfoliated, fitness trained, name-branded…”)
About Face is Giraldi’s third novel; his second, Hold the Darka mystery thriller set in the Alaskan wilderness was adapted into a Netflix film in 2018. He also wrote The hero’s body, a memoir about his teenage years and the violent death of his father. In 2021, Giraldi won a Guggenheim Fellowship. It’s fitting that his most recent novel deals with the consequences of being in the spotlight—though he’ll be the first to tell you that he’s far from celebrity status.
Giraldi sat down with BU Today to talk about the inspiration for his new novel, his reflections on contemporary celebrities, his distinctive prose style and his fascination with the ongoing appeal of self-styled gurus.
With William Giraldi
BU Today: This is really a writer’s book. What was it like creating a writer-narrator?
Giraldi: I have a funny confession to make, which is that in all three of my novels the main characters are writers. Why do I do this again and again? This seems to be because my books are so language-focused – language-indulgent, we should say – and with this artistry I can surrender to language, to really stretch the boundaries of what syntax and diction can do, whether in dialogue, description, scene setting or narration. It gives me a freedom with language that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
BU Today: What inspires your sense of playfulness with language?
Giraldi: The impetus comes from my own love of exuberant language, and from a hatred of boredom. The truth is that many writers just put me to sleep with their sentences. To read a writer with a genuine gift for the acrobatic qualities of language, who can make English do things that other people can’t, that’s exciting to me. English is one of my great loves and so I enjoy playing with it, stretching it and trying to exploit its elasticity. I think there are too many writers who are just craftsmen and not necessarily artists. So this is really, I guess, just my attempt to pursue art.
BU Today: What got you interested in writing a book about the dangers of celebrity culture and the internet?
Giraldi: I knew that I wanted to write a novel about a celebrity guru. I had this notion that I was interested in pursuing gurudom in part because it’s a quasi-religious, quasi-mystical, quasi-spiritual role, and religion—both secularized religion and organized religion—is a subject that a lot of my brain space. All these topics came together for me: the topic of celebrity, the topic of religion, the topic of guru-dom, the topic of pop culture. These were all subject areas that I turned around and connected. The characters of Valentino Face and the narrator-journalist, Seger Jovi, were an opportunity for me to really try to get to the bottom of what it was all about through imagination and storytelling. It is not the novelist’s job to provide answers. It is not the novelist’s job to solve problems. It is the novelist’s job to tell a story. What one hopes is that by telling the story, a certain clarity can be gained.
BU Today: Your book draws a strong line between today’s celebrities and the superstars of the 1970s and ’80s. What is the crucial difference between the two?
Giraldi: The erasure of mystique, I guess. In the 70s and 80s, it was absolutely essential that you not have easy access to what the celebrity was thinking. It started happening decades earlier, in 1930s and ’40s Hollywood, as with my character’s namesake, Rudolph Valentino. You had absolutely no access to him, but he was beautiful, and he was charismatic, and he was up there on the big screen, larger than life. That element of mystery elevates these celebrities to gods. There is a very powerful mysticism involved with our gods, whoever those gods are. Now we have total access to our celebrities, and I think that’s detrimental. The internet has democratized celebrity, but it’s done so at the expense of mystique, and I think at the expense of true superstardom.
BU Today: How did the city of Boston have the characters, and the plot, of About Face?
Giraldi: I think of the city as a character in the book as much as any other character in the story. The whole strength of this story was tied to its background. If you’re talking about guru-dom, Boston is the place to do the story. Boston was run by theocrats in its early years. They had some kind of fame in the city of Boston and eventually beyond that I wanted to connect with Valentino Face. We live in a city with a rich history of charismatics. People would trek for miles through the snow to listen to Increase Mather or Cotton Mather [father and son Puritan clergymen renowned for their preaching]. This whole idea of American guru-dom – of the seeker, the mystic – has its foundations right here.
BU Today: What fascinates you so much about gurus and celebrities?
Giraldi: It could be because I am a Catholic and I was raised in the Church. Catholicism is an intense and mythical and literary branch of Christianity. Because I am interested in religion and myth, I am interested in these guru figures, such as [self-help author] Tony Robbins. This guy doesn’t consider himself a religious figure, but when you see his audience, and you see what he’s doing up there on stage, it’s like a Baptist revival. I am studying obsession [for a forthcoming book] and different ways in which it manifests: Is it good? Isn’t that good? What makes people obsessed? What does obsession do to certain people? I always circle the same topics, which I think is something all writers do. I write about obsession with celebrity in a very different way than About Facebut it is nevertheless something that remains very powerful for me.