"Face Value" has a happy ending of sorts. The chief villain, a Hollywood agent and manager named Mal Bookmaster, suffers a horrible and richly deserved death, and his primary tool, a standup comedian named Robert Schein whom he has programmed like a zombie and launched on a political career, seems to be neutralized.
But the thoughtful reader (and "Face Value" is worth a thoughtful reader's time - not for its story but for its richly detailed background) will put the book down with an uneasy feeling. The bad guys have lost a round, but the game continues and the forces that give the bad guys their strength are as active as ever. The villains are fiction, but the underlying forces (perhaps slightly exaggerated) are fact.
"Face Value" is about the triumph of image over reality in contemporary America, about the substitution of the celebrity for the person who actually does something as a focus for our national attention and esteem, about the trivialization of our minds and the degeneration of life for most of us into a spectator sport. In other words, it is about television, specifically about televised news and thematically about the erosion of essential distinctions between news reporting and show business.
Most of the action takes place in and around Station WRAP-TV, the New York outlet and flagship station of the Continental Broadcasting Network, where a quiet revolution is taking place. CBN is a network of UHF stations - not really impoverished, but a poor fourth to the big VHF networks. In its effort to catch up, WRAP introduces more and more entertainment elements into its news until it is featuring celebrities as guest assistants to its anchorman (who needs all the help he can get) and focusing most of its energy on such subjects as "sex in baseball" and "celebrity muggings."
A climax of sorts is reached on the night (with Bette Midler as guest coanchor& when the lead story is the funeral of a cat who became a celebrity by starring in commercials: "And so ends the saga of a stray feline, a drifter, who ended up better known to the people of America than most of their own senators and governors." The most horrifying thing about this statement is not that it might be uttered and taken seriously on an information outlet, but that it is true, and its truth is being wryly celebrated by the medium that made it happen.
The sense of values behind this process is expressed neatly by a constellation of names used fairly early in the book, when Robert Schein is still a comedian and not yet a threat to civilization as we know it, to indicate his potential: "We have quality control. We can make Robert Schein a bigger name in America than Begin, Sadat and Castro put together! And Ronald McDonald and R2D2!"
As it happens, Schein resembles the last two figures more than the others, being both a clown and (at least metaphorically) a robot. In fact, R2D2 has a bit more personality than he has, and that is an advantage for Schein - too much personality cuts down on potential audience identification; what matters is to look well on the tube.
There is considerable significance, too, in the way this sentence lumps together real and imaginary persons. The preferred, durable celebrity, in the age of video, is as much a manufactured product as R2D2, and the medium is slightly ill-at-ease with the occasional individual who actually has a distinctive quality. Such persons are used as sideshows; they come and go, providing briefly a touch of spice to liven the medium's generally bland flavor.
A typical group of these celebrities appears on a talk show in the book: "The glamorous, alcoholic wife of a United States senator, a woman who had confessed her "secret" on the cover of every important national magazine; the country's most celebrated mass murderer, on videotape, to be sure, from his prison cell, playing a song he had composed...; the author of a best-selling biography of the deceased celebrity cat; a "ruggedly handsome" Catholic priest specializing in exorcism and Pentecostal hearing...." But these are not blockbuster celebrities, they are camera fodder.
Schein, lacking any trace of personality, is "a blank slate...pure potential," and his campaign is a forerunner of the day "when you'll have to be a celebrity to get elected...when there won't be any difference between entertainment and politics...."
That day is, of course, still in the future - years away, or at least months.