Television shopping was born in 1982, when the Home Shopping Club, a regional cable channel, was launched in Florida. Prior to this, Americans had been at liberty to do as much shopping, and as much TV-watching, as they liked. They just hadn't been at liberty to do both at the same time. Unsurprisingly, television shopping has been a huge hit in the US, with the major channels - QVC, Home Shopping Network, Shop at Home - shifting billions of dollars' worth of products. Unsurprisingly, too, the concept has become synonymous with capitalism at its most grasping and vapid.
Given all this, you'd expect writers to have latched on to the comedic potential of home shopping long ago. Yet Augusten Burroughs is, to my knowledge, the first novelist to address the subject. Sellevision appeared in the US in 2000, two years before the publication of Burroughs's career-establishing childhood memoir, Running With Scissors. Not before time, the novel now makes its appearance in the UK, adorned with a cover puff from Bret Easton Ellis.
Sellevision is America's "premier retail broadcasting network". The station's half-dozen presenters anxiously watch each other's TV slots, and compete for the attention of their boss, Howard Toast. When the novel opens, Max Andrews, the channel's only gay presenter, has just been sacked, after his penis slipped out from under his dressing gown during the "Toys for Tots" segment. But Max is not the only one in difficulty. Peggy Jean Smythe, a mother-of-three who prides herself on her wholesome image, has just started receiving e-mails from a viewer, alerting her to her "hairy earlobe problem". Bebe Friedman, the station's 42-year-old star presenter, has a rapidly worsening shopping addiction, which is exacerbated by her inability to find a man. Meanwhile, Sellevision's newest recruit, Leigh Bushmoore, has embarked on an unhappy, adulterous affair with Howard Toast.
Burroughs flits between these characters in a manner familiar from countless other satires. Sellevision may not be terrifically original, but it is terrific fun. Burroughs has a sadistic sense of humour, and contrives deliciously ironic punishments for his characters: Peggy Jean fetches up in a loony bin; unemployed Max tries his hand at porn; Howard is himself sacked after he is outed as a love rat on live TV. In one final scene, Bebe's apartment is destroyed in a fire caused by too many appliances being plugged in. As warnings about the perils of materialism go, this seems as appropriate as any.