New Yorker editor Ben Greenman inserts celebrities into the stories of Anton Chekhov.
The newest book by the New Yorker editor and author Ben Greenman, Celebrity Chekhov (Harper Perennial), takes the classic stories of Anton Chekhov and inserts contemporary American celebrities. In the published version of "A Classical Student," Chekhov/Greenman's protagonist is punished by a certain infamous motorcycle customizer. Here, in an alternate version exclusive to Nerve, an entirely different figure metes out rough justice. It should be stressed that every word of the story is fiction, including "and," "the," and "thrash."
Before setting off for her audition, Lindsay Lohan kissed all the movie posters. Her stomach felt as though it were upside down; there was a chill at her heart, while the heart itself throbbed and stood still with terror before the unknown. What would she get that day? An offer? A callback? Six times she went to her mother for her blessing, and, as she went out, asked her sister to pray for her. On the way to the audition she gave a homeless man five dollars, in the hope that that five dollars would atone for her ignorance, and that she would not forget her lines or what her character was feeling.
She came back from the audition late, between four and five. She came in, and noiselessly lay down on her bed. Her freckled face was pale and looked even thinner than usual. There were dark lines beneath her eyes.
“Well, how was it? What did they think? Was the director there?” asked her mother Dina, going to her bedside.
Lindsay blinked, twisted her mouth, and burst into tears. Her mother turned pale, let her mouth fall open, and clasped her hands. The magazine she was reading dropped to the floor.
“What are you crying for? You’ve failed, then?” her mother asked.
“They said it was fine and that they’d be in touch, but I know what that means.”
“I knew this would happen! I had a dream last night,” said her mother. “God! How is it you can’t get real roles? What is the reason? What kind of movie was this again?”
“A teen comedy based on Shakespeare. I knew the lines perfect, but when they asked me to explain them, I froze up. I was reading from the scene where I come out of my bedroom in the middle of the night, and I don’t feel well because of this murder I did, I mean my character of course, and there’s a doctor standing nearby. I thought I would try something different, and go to the doctor for help—not the real doctor, but the doctor in the play —but it turns out my character is sleepwalking and I’m not supposed to know, she’s not supposed to know, that the doctor is even there. I think they thought I didn’t understand. I am miserable. I was working on this all week.”
“It’s not you who should be miserable, but me. I’m miserable. I’ve finally had enough. This is the last straw. I have been taking you to auditions since you were a little girl. I’ve broken my back for you. This is a role that should be a breeze to get. Why can’t you just try harder?”
“I . . . I am trying as hard as I know. I’m up until three or four every night practicing. You’ve seen it yourself.”
“I prayed to God to take me, but He leaves me here to suffer from you. Other people have children like everyone else. I get pleasure and comfort from your sister but none from you. I’d beat you, but where am I to find the strength? Mother of God, where am I to find the strength?”
The mother hid her face in the folds of her blouse and broke into sobs. Lindsay wriggled with anguish and pressed her forehead against the wall. Lindsay’s sister Ali came into the room.
“So that’s how it is. Just what I expected,” Ali said, at once guessing what was wrong, turning pale. “I’ve been depressed all afternoon, while you were out at the audition. There’s trouble coming, I thought, and here it is.”
“No comfort! Where can I find the strength? God damn it.”
“Why are you swearing at her?” cried the sister, turning upon the mother. “It’s not her fault! It’s your fault! You are to blame! Why did you start taking her to auditions? You want to be rich? You’re rich. It’s not like you’re going to turn into an aristocrat. You should have sent her into business, or made her work for a real company. Sure, she had some success, but she’ll drop out of view for long stretches in years to come. And you are wearing yourself out, and wearing her out! She is thin. She coughs constantly. Just look at her!”
“No, Ali, no! I haven’t beaten her enough! She ought to have been beaten, that’s what it is!” The mother shook her fist at her daughters. “You want a flogging, but I haven’t the strength. They told me years ago when she was little, ‘Whip her, whip her!’ I didn’t heed them, and now I am suffering for it. You wait a bit! I’ll flay you! Wait a bit.”
Dina shook her fist, and went weeping into the other room, where her houseguest was sitting. The houseguest, Stephen Colbert, was sitting at a table, reading Shakespeare, of all things. Stephen Colbert was a man of intelligence and education. He spoke through his nose, washed with a soap the smell of which made everyone in the house sneeze, and was forever on the look-out for women of refined education. He sang tenor.
“My good friend,” began Dina, dissolving into tears. “If you would have the generosity to thrash my girl for me. Do me the favor! She failed another audition, that one! Would you believe it? A failure, again. I can’t punish her, through the weakness of my ill health. Thrash her for me, if you would be so considerate! Have regard for a sick woman!”
Stephen Colbert frowned and heaved a deep sigh through his nose. He thought a little, drummed on the table with his fingers, and sighing once more, went to Lindsay.
“You are being encouraged,” he began, “being given a great opportunity, you revolting young person! Why have you done this?” He talked for a long time, made a speech. He alluded to science, to light, to darkness, to democracy.
When he had finished his speech, he took off his belt and took Lindsay by the hand.
“It’s the only way to deal with you,” he said. Lindsay knelt down submissively and thrust her head between the houseguest’s knees. Her prominent pink ears moved up and down against his new trousers, which had brown stripes on the outer seams.
Lindsay did not utter a single sound. At the family council in the evening, it was decided to send her into business.
Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and the author of several acclaimed books of fiction, including Superbad and Please Step Back. What He's Poised to Do, a collection of stories, was published in June by Harper Perennial; Celebrity Chekhov is out later this month.
From the book Celebrity Chekhov by Anton Chekhov. Modified by Ben Greenman. Excerpted by arrangement with HarperPerennial, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers. Copyright © 2010