Ultimately, Dead Famous asks us what we really value in those we idolise — and why. Revere them or revile them, celebrities are ubiquitous: flawed and fragile vessels for the dreams of others, things to gaze in wonder at or curse, like the stars we name them for. Celebrity-watching itself thus becomes a rapt human astrology, offering hope, inspiration — and warning — as we struggle for our own still sense of being in the noise of modern life.
Jenner is like an irrepressible junior school teacher, anxious to keep pupils’ attention. ‘Blimey! We ended up in a dark place there, didn’t we?’ he gushes. His prose style is seemingly aimed at children.
But I am not a child and it makes me very cross. See me after class.
But what really marks Dead Famous as of its time is that the author backs up his opinions by conducting a Twitter poll. As an active fellow of the Twitterati, with 90,000 followers, Jenner is well placed to use this resource. Ninety per cent of his 2,000 respondents agreed with him that, yes, Reynolds’s portrait does make Garrick look like ‘a tiresome jerk’. It’s perhaps germane that although the Twitter skill of delivering a factoid or jab of insight is here, the sustained art of context and structure is undeveloped.
It helps that Jenner is equal parts wide-eyed historical buff and sassy polemicist. Like some frisky, over-caffeinated lovechild of Dan Snow and Marina Hyde, he can’t help but entertain you, even as he’s pouring facts down your throat. It’s hard to resist an author who titles one of his chapters “The Fandom Menace”, or who describes Mick Jagger as a “narrow-hipped, geriatric strut machine”, Lord Byron as that “talented, pouty shag merchant with the lustrous hair”, or Gertrude Stein as “the modernist Miley Cyrus, minus the twerking” (trust me, it kind of makes sense). Florence Nightingale is introduced as “properly live-in-a-country-house, summer-in-Italy posh”, as well as being “a badass epidemiologist with a penchant for pie chart innovation”. The 18th‑century Irish novelist Laurence Sterne “hurled himself into his newfound celebrity with the panting eagerness of a spaniel leaping into the ocean of a scorching summer’s day”. George Washington, on the other hand, possessed “all the flamboyance of a bowl of porridge”. But even he, I suspect, would have enjoyed reading this joyous romp of a book.