The Rat Race was first published in Britain in 1984, almost thirty years after its debut in America as Who He? I’m using the British title because that’s the one with which I’m familiar. It’s a picture of the US television industry in those early days of live performance, and Bester prefaced the reissue with a note putting what follows firmly in its place as historical, with no relation to the modern industry.
The book’s appearance took me completely by surprise. By then, I had read almost all of Bester’s SF output, including the two late, disappointing novels, and I had not even heard of any mainstream fiction by him. But it’s very clearly his work: the same drive, the same attack, the same compulsions, the same psychoanalytical underpinnings, applied to a world as strange and rare as that of The Demolished Man, and no less intriguing for being ‘real’.
Though The Rat Race was clearly not a major work, it had been well-received in 1955, and optioned for adaptation as a feature film. The film was never made, but the money Bester received enabled him and his actress wife to tour Europe. This windfall would have extensive effects upon Bester’s career.
Bester and his wife – fictionalised lightly as Kitten (a nickname) and Robin – play peripheral roles in this story, with Bester playing the narrator’s role. The story covers a week, between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and it begins with its end, with the cast and crew of the Sunday night television Quiz/Variety show ‘Who He?’ performing the show live, with a dead body hanging from the set beams, its heels five foot above them, and only just concealed by the stage curtain.
That’s a hell of a set-up.
Central to the story is Jordan ‘Jake’ Lennox. Jake is a scriptwriter, the writer, and co-creator of ‘Who He?’ Jake’s a fighter, who’s come up out of nowhere, battling his way from nothing to his current position of respect and success. But there’s a conflict between his self-image as an elegant, austere, kindly, liberal man, ‘second son of the Duke of Suffolk’ and his inner persona as a roughneck, a scrapper, driven by violent impulses, a hard-drinker. When we first see him, he’s gone on a twenty-four hour bender on Christmas Eve, after the ‘Who He?’ broadcast, and is so drunk he has no idea who he is, having gotten involved with a fat, blonde prostitute, convinced his name is Clarence Fox, a Quaker from Pennsylvania.
Later in the book, the events of that bender will be re-created, and an epic of endurance and serendipity it is.
Back on the show, a crisis is developing. ‘Who He?’ is fronted by the ventriloquist act Mason & Dixon, and Mason’s made a mistake. Asking the caller to give an alternate name for Santa Claus, expecting St Nicholas, he got Kris Kringle and rejected it as wrong: the customer’s husband is a lawyer and he’s already threatening lawsuit. Everyone’s in a panic, and everyone’s passing the blame around so fast, the potato will never cool down.
Jake defuses the situation by offering the offended couple the starring role in a new game show, featuring an ordinary couple trying various game shows (the idea takes off at the end, giving Jake an uncomfortable choice) but before that point we meet all the principle figures in and around the show and get an eyeful of their various neuroses, schticks and tightropes that each walk to enable them to function in this bizarre television world.
‘Who He?’ been running for thirty-nine weeks, successfully, but it has to be wary. Network producer Roy Audibon has his eye on the slot for one of his own productions, is threatening ‘Who He?’ as being ten points below its slot’s potential.
Mig Mason, the humourless, insecure vent, is denying any responsibility for the disaster and wants the telephone girl fired. His permanent entourage consists of one wife, three gagmen and his agent, Tooky Weems, a walking parasite without a human bone in him. Nor is producer Mel Grabinar exactly stable or reliable; hell, nobody in this world is.
Except perhaps Sam Cooper, the show’s rehearsal pianist: Jake’s flatmate and best friend. Sam’s a nice guy, thoughtful, kind, protective of Jake. But even he has a problem: Sam’s written a song, a potentially very successful song. Jake wants to promote it even to the extent of Sam becoming a performer on the New Year’s Eve show. Mig and Tooky want a piece of the song and Jake fights to protect Sam, even though Sam doesn’t want a battle…
Central to the story is a mysterious threat to ‘Who He?’, nasty, vicious, poison-pen letters that drip with filth and anger. The latest promises a killing on New Year’s Eve, and Jake sets out to find and neutralise the source of the threats. Along the way, he quickly encounters the beautiful, pacifistic, communist-sympathising Gabrielle ‘Gabby’ Valentine: the pair fall in love in a relationship that runs through far too many changes and complications, most of these relating to Jake’s changes of mood, his combativeness against Gabby’s pathological urge to avoid fighting, but some of them are down to Gabby being Roy Audibon’s estranged wife.
So Lennox blunders and stumbles his way through a week of intense pursuit and multiple craziness, fighting for his show, his love, his friend and, though he only slowly becomes aware of it, himself. I don’t like giving away major spoilers, but it’s impossible to avoid giving away that the writer of these hatred filled letters is Jake himself, in drunken fugues during which his internal self-loathing comes to the surface.
All things come to a head at the New Year’s Eve show, when all the crazy, unbelievable yet oddly realistic characters come together. One goes over the edge and swings above everybody’s eyes, the sacrifice to madness: not merely Lennox’s own condition but the rampant madness of neurosis that is television at this time and the nerves of those who live with or within it.
For Jake there is a choice at the end. His put-up show to shut up the ordinary couple signs contracts, is a network winner. He has a piece of it again. He can go back into the rat race, free and clear, his problems wiped, his future back on track. There’s a condition to it though, a condition that Gabby will accept but it depends on Jake accepting it too, for the sake of everything he’s done and achieved. Or he can go it the hard way.
The Rat Race is a ferociously tackled, intense, complex, detailed book, driven by the same psychological urges and the same imbalances that characterised Bester’s two SF classics, the one before and the one after it. It depicted an unreal, but real society with the same forensic detail as the two classics, and like both those books, Bester convinces us that what we are seeing is real, despite it being a harder sell.
It’s now, as the author pointed out in 1984, a historical fiction, though I’m willing to bet that, in some aspects, the world of television hasn’t moved that far along from the things we see here.
One thing that I should bring up is that, throughout the book, Jake Lennox displays a virulent hatred towards gays – or fags as he generally calls them. Bester demonstrated in The Demolished Man a definite masculinity of attitude, and that runs through all of his writing. It’s at its worst in the anti-gay attitudes in this book, the arts – and television – being an area that attracts a reputedly higher proportion of gay interest than other professions.
To modern eyes, it’s unpleasant, sometimes loathsome, especially when it’s plain that it’s the author speaking through his character rather than describing a third party mindset. But it’s also of the times, and the only point at which it becomes germane to the story, Lennox is ignorant of the implications and it is the much more enlightened and sympathetic Gabby who takes charge, in a kind, fair but implacable manner that is entirely personal rather than dogmatic.
Otherwise, the book is so strong, and we do have to recognise when reading works that are over fifty years old that they come from a world where our attitudes didn’t hold. A spot of doublethink is often needed and this is one such.
Because it isn’t SF, most of Bester’s fans aren’t interested in The Rat Race, which is a shame. It is him from head to toe, written when he was at his peak, and it deserves attention and a better recognition than it achieves.