31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 20: “Designer Emotion 67” by Charles Yu

May 20, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Sorry Please Thank You

Sorry_Please_Thank_YouCharles Yu works in the same mode of postmodern satire as the late David Foster Wallace, albeit with a more populist spin. Yu avoids Wallace’s Byzantine sentence style and digressive approach in favour of a more compact, straightforward method. His stories unfold in short bursts, often (as with the work of fellow American story writer George Saunders) relying on a gimmick or joke to carry the narrative. “Note to Self,” for instance, is cast as an epistolary interaction between several versions of an individual consciousness debating the properties of the multiverse. “Inventory” is about a character named Charles Yu who wakes up every morning in a different context and takes stock of what he knows and doesn’t know about himself, his eponymous doppelgänger, and an unidentified woman who appears to have abandoned him. (Questions of identity loom large in Yu’s writing.) “The Book of Categories” is written as an instruction manual on the nature and function of a kind of Borgesian meta-catalogue that is used to catalogue all other catalogues in existence, past, present, and future.

As with Wallace and Saunders (and, for that matter, Borges), the danger here is that the cleverness of the conceit takes over, and some of the stories in Sorry Please Thank You succumb to this tendency. “Designer Emotion 67,” by contrast, manages to straddle the line between slick presentation and thematic resonance. In other words, there is meaning beneath the posturing. It is also deeply funny.

The story is cast as an address to the shareholders of PharmaLife, Inc., a company that has made a tidy profit on research into the chemical alteration or eradication of negative moods in humans. The year is 2050, and a footnote informs us that the U.S. has become the United States of China. The CEO of PharmaLife, Tripp Hauser, is using his annual report as an opportunity to crow about some of his company’s recent successes, and to address rumours of a new project – Number 67 – that has everyone buzzing.

Designer Emotion 67 is the apotheosis of everything PharmaLife has been working toward, research that includes “solid work in Depression” and “increasing market share in Dread.” It is the “meaning pill” or “the God pill,” and Hauser assures his shareholders that once the product goes to market, they “are all going to be very rich.”

The actual function of the God pill is left ambiguous: “It does what you think it does” is all Hauser is willing to say. Instead of focusing specifically on what the pill does, Hauser emphasizes its potential for profit, which is in keeping with his approach throughout. Depression and dread – serious psychological conditions for many people – are characterized as opportunities to increase earnings for PharmaLife via new drugs and synthetic panaceas. Hauser is perfectly blunt about this: he tells his listeners about successful efforts to create a “Depression-industrial complex” and to dominate the market in mood elevators through canny corporate positioning. “Winning in the Depression/Suicide space these days means keeping the machine running smoothly.”

Yu replicates the vapid corporate language of CEOs and marketing departments, heightening the irony of his satire by applying this to a subject that is fraught with potential harm for the very people PharmaLife is targeting. “Depression may have matured and become a marketing shop,” Hauser declaims, “but the DREAD business unit is still the domain of the engineers, a basic and applied science shop, still at the exciting phase of its life cycle, on the upslope of the knowledge curve, and everything is up for discussion.”

He also tears through the legally mandated warnings about potential side effects of PharmaLife products (side effects that include “random arterial swelling, random arterial bursting, loss of consciousness, splitting of consciousness, loss of mind, partial zombification”) in a manner reminiscent of the worst of the pharmaceutical advertisements on American television.

Hauser’s cavalier lack of empathy (he only admits the negative side effects of PharmaLife products because the FDA mandates him to do so) carries over to the matter of staff layoffs, which he addresses with mock humility and fake sorrow. He denies that 1.5 million people will be laid off in an attempt to further increase shareholder earnings, not because mass layoffs are not being considered, but because 1.5 million is a round number, and the chances that exactly that many people will lose their jobs is miniscule. His true agenda is laid bare in his “apology” to any workers who might suffer as a result of PharmaLife’s actions:

I hereby apologize on behalf of the company for your hurting; provided, however, that it is expressly agreed by all of you that such an apology shall in no event be construed as an admission of guilt, blameworthiness, culpability, involvement, intention, recklessness, negligence, fraud, error, omission, regret, sympathy, empathy, or acknowledgement that you have been harmed.

This statement is a comic masterpiece of prevarication: Hauser will apologize to the employees who face downsizing only if those employees expressly agree that the company that is bouncing them out of a job shall remain harmless from blame. Nor is the company apology meant as a statement of sympathy with those who face the prospect of losing their jobs; it does not even amount to basic acknowledgement of the harm that it is putatively apologizing for.

In one sense, corporate doublespeak and shareholder avarice represent low-hanging fruit for satire. These things have been lampooned well by everyone from Wallace to Chuck Palahniuk. But there is no denying Yu’s ability to wring comedy from his situation, or the sting of recognition at just how little he is exaggerating his brief tale of greed and designer wellness.

A TSR book challenge for 2011

January 4, 2011 by · 7 Comments 

Anyone spending a significant amount of time on blogs and websites devoted to books will come across any number of reading-related challenges. At Book Mine Set, John Mutford challenges readers to read 13 Canadian books in a year. Mark Sampson challenges readers to reread a book they loved 15 or more years ago. In June of 2010, the folks at The Morning News challenged readers to read David Foster Wallace’s doorstopper novel Infinite Jest over the summer. And on Twitter, there is the 50 Book Pledge, which involves readers pledging to read (unsurprisingly) 50 books in 2011. That works out to a book a week, with two weeks’ grace time.

The Twitter challenge has been getting a lot of traction online, and has been officially endorsed by the HarperCollins staffers at The Savvy Reader, nine of whom have taken the pledge. As of 3:00 p.m. this afternoon, their comment feed had 32 responses, the vast majority from people signing on to take the challenge.

Now, far be it from me to complain about people getting excited about reading. My entire project here at TSR is to stoke enthusiasm about literature and to encourage people to lose themselves in books. But it seems to me that challenges like the 50 Book Pledge approach reading in the wrong way.

First off, by imposing artificial deadlines, the project risks denuding reading of its pleasure. Speaking as someone who reads to deadlines for a living, I can assure you that it is neither the easiest nor the most enjoyable way to encounter the written word. At the site In Over Your Head, author Julien Smith provides a list of tips on how to manage a book per week, things like “Make a Routine,” “Use Every Moment,” and “Never Fall Behind.” Call me crazy, but this sounds like a hell of a lot of work, not to mention the attendant guilt should one not manage to keep up the pace.

The first comment on Smith’s post begins, “I’ve wanted to make ‘reading more books, more often’ my life’s resolution for … well, forever now.” This seems to be the impetus behind many people signing on to the 50 Book Pledge, but it is also chimerical. According to Stephen Shapiro, there were 127,000 books published each year in the U.S. as of 2006; the number is no doubt higher now. Assuming a population that is 10% the size, Canada should publish roughly 13,000 books per year (a conservative estimate, to be sure). There is obviously no way any individual can read even a fraction of these titles, yet people online are champing at the bit to get a massive number of books under their belts in 2011.

Two things to bear in mind. First, reading is not a competitive sport. Some people read quickly, others read more slowly. One’s relative reading pace, as well as the relative length and difficulty of the texts one chooses, will inevitably impact the number of books one is able to read in a given period. There are only 24 hours in a day, after all.

Second, and more importantly, the whole premise behind the 50 Book Pledge privileges quantity over quality. That is, it focuses on the amount a person reads, without giving any thought to the way a person reads. This is totally in keeping with an online culture that prizes speed and efficiency, but it does little to promote quality reading, which often requires that a reader slow down to properly appreciate the nuances of a particular text. One of the great joys of reading is savouring the quality of a writer’s prose, which is difficult to do if one is barrelling through the book in order to get to the next one on time.

With that in mind, here is TSR’s reading challenge for 2011. Frankly, I don’t give a tinker’s damn how many books you read this year, whether they are classics or Harlequin romances, or whether you gravitate toward Canadian, American, or Mongolian literature. Instead of pledging to read more this year, why don’t we all try to read better: to be more sensitive, expansive readers, to enter more deeply into the text, to actively engage with books on an intellectual, aesthetic, and linguistic level. Let’s try to focus less on the quantity of our reading and more on the quality. Who knows? By slowing down a bit, you might even find you’re enjoying yourself more.

Of lit salons and author readings

April 28, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Last night at The Spoke Club, Open Book Toronto hosted the inaugural edition of the Toronto Literary Salon, in partnership with The Spoke and Thompson Hotels. Yesterday’s event featured a panel consisting of authors Russell Smith (Girl Crazy), Joey Comeau (One Bloody Thing After Another), and David Eddie (Damage Control). The panel was moderated by Nathan Whitlock (A Week of This).

Modelled on the French literary salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, Open Book’s new endeavour is meant to be a place where authors and readers can come together in a casual environment to converse, exchange ideas, and maybe even get into some friendly disagreements. From Open Book’s website:

Do what engaged and curious people have done for centuries and gather with writers for a salon. The point? To amuse each other, to be inspired by writing and culture, to expand one’s knowledge and opinions through conversation. Salons are where true dialogue (and yes, often feisty arguments) emerge.

There weren’t many feisty arguments to be had last night, in part, I suspect, because of the size of the group, which increased the intimidation factor. (The audience filled the room, spilling over into a little alcove at the back, which was separated by a wall, so the poor souls who found themselves sequestered there could listen to the proceedings, but could not see the panel.) Moreover, the event was more structured than it was perhaps intended to be, resembling more a typical reading and author Q&A than a free-form discussion between audience and panel. Things did loosen up toward the end, but time constraints cut the conversation short just as it appeared to be gearing up.

One reason the event felt so structured was that it kicked off with each author giving a short reading. (Apparently, neither the authors nor the moderator were aware that there was a reading component to the event prior to arriving on the scene.) As anyone who has ever attended a reading knows, the culture of author readings imposes a separation between the performer and the audience. It’s difficult to smoothly transition from that kind of format to a more open conversation among a large(ish) number of individuals.

There was some discussion among the panelists about whether they enjoyed giving/attending readings – Eddie was in favour of them, Smith was opposed (and did an hilarious, spot-on impersonation of the kind of droning, monotone voice that certain poets adopt when reading their work aloud). Yr. humble correspondent tends to side with Smith, finding the vast majority of author readings tedious in the extreme. There is also something frankly perverse about expecting authors – who are usually introverted individuals and who spend the bulk of their days alone in a room wrestling with the contents of their own heads – to get up on a stage in front of an audience and entertain. The panelists were in general agreement that a reading is a public performance, but it seems to me that an author’s performance exists on the page. Once the book is finished, the author’s job is done. It’s now the reader’s turn to engage with the text the author has created.

I say that I tend to side with Smith, because there are isolated instances in which an author has been so proficient at performing his or her work that I have actually found myself – almost against my will – enjoying the experience. One example of this is a David Foster Wallace reading I attended years ago at Harbourfront’s International Fesitval of Authors here in Toronto. Wallace read a section of Infinite Jest dealing with a couple of inept thieves who burgle the home of a French Canadian man with a head cold. When I read the passage myself, it seemed clever, but nothing special. However, when Wallace read it, providing the requisite pauses and emphases, it was eye-wateringly funny. Here is an instance in which an author’s interpretation of his own material actually transformed the material in my estimation, making it leap off the page where once it had just sat there, inert. That, however, is the exception rather than the rule. In most cases, authors (who may be incredibly engaging when speaking extemporaneously) lose all their charisma and appeal the minute they begin reciting from their work. Not for nothing do people in the know try to time their arrivals at book launches strategically so that they miss the readings but are still able to avail themselves of the open bar.

I look forward to future iterations of the Toronto Literary Salon (there are three more scheduled, one in early summer and the other two in the fall), and hope that they will de-emphasize the more structured component and encourage greater dialogue between authors and readers. The danger is that such a free-form discussion could descend into anarchy, or be dominated by one or two voices. However, the upside would be an enhanced engagement with authors off the page, and perhaps even a few of those feisty arguments that sound so intriguing.

Literary algebra: The commercial + the literary = the not-quite

December 16, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Ever since commercial fiction has outsold its literary counterpart (which, for those who are unsure, means always), people have argued about what exactly constitutes “literary” fiction. How esoteric/highbrow/impenetrable does a work of fiction have to be to qualify as a “literary” novel? My colleague and buddy Nathan Whitlock has charged into this minefield with characteristic abandon in a recent column for Maisonneuve magazine. Whitlock kicks off his argument by pointing to a review of Lori Lansens’ novel The Wife’s Tale, commissioned by yours truly for Quill & Quire (where Whitlock and yr. humble correspondent share a pod-like cubicle) and written by James Grainger.

Now, I consider Grainger to be one of the sharpest critics in this country, but his review – which was generally positive – nevertheless roused the ire of Lansens’ agent, Denise Bukowski, who accused the reviewer of getting his facts wrong (the review erroneously stated that Oprah Winfrey had optioned the film rights to Lansens’ first novel, Rush Home Road)* and, more egregiously, of committing what Whitlock refers to as the “Sin of Distinction”: “after listing some of the authors who had been picked either for Oprah’s Book Club or … the U.K.’s Richard and Judy Book Club, Bukowski fought back against Grainger’s ‘patronizing’ notion that Lansens was working within chosen boundaries.” Whitlock summarizes the whole farrago this way:

This dust-up was a visible manifestation of a larger problem dogging Canadian publishing: the semi-utopian belief that literature is a garden that not only welcomes all comers (true enough), but contains no hedges or fences, is equally accessible from corner to corner, is blind to difference and immune to personal bias. Authors of all stripes mingle freely, and woe to him who suggests there are fundamental differences between what they write and for whom it’s intended.

The temptation to conflate various kinds of novels that are in fact distinct in execution and intended audience, Whitlock contends, should be avoided; critics need to “be more discerning” in “understanding (or perhaps admitting) that fiction comes in many forms” and they must be “unequivocal about what a given book is, and … catholic enough in their professional tastes to fairly assess diverse authorial intentions.” By describing the commercial aspects of Lansens’ novel, Grainger was simply performing one aspect of the critic’s job: situating the work within a particular category or tradition. Where Bukowski erred was in assuming that this implied any kind of value judgment.

Whitlock puts his finger on the reason a certain kind of middlebrow novel holds sway over CanLit these days: the dominant trend favours a kind of hybrid novel – what he refers to as the “Not-Quite Novel” – the literary equivalent of Dr. Moreau’s man-beasts: books that are “too thorny and/or sober to entertain, yet too conventional and broad to last.” The result of this artificial generic enjambment is novels like The Book of Negroes: ambitious tales about weighty subjects told in a manner that is straightforward and unchallenging. By refusing to completely embrace one aspect or the other – the commercial or the literary – the novel ends up doing justice to neither.

If I have any difficulty with Whitlock’s argument, it would reside in my feeling that he goes too far in pursuing an overly rigid dichotomy between “commercial” novels – those “big-plot, lots-o’-story books” – and “literary” ones (by which I take it he means difficult, more stylistically adventurous books that eschew story in favour of character development and syntactical pyrotechnics). The implication seems to be that “thorny and/or sober” books can’t entertain, while “conventional and broad” books don’t endure. What, then, is one to do with Dickens (who has been called the Shakespeare of the novel), whose writing was enormously commercial in the author’s own day, yet endures down to the present? (Whitlock covers himself here, referring at one point to “the strange things that time and distance can do to artistic categories,” but this admission seems to take a bit of the sting out of his argument.) How does one account for a book like Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, an Oprah pick that is unequivocally a “big-plot, lots-o’-story” novel, but seems to have a certain amount of staying power (first released in 1996, this month it was selected as one of the five contenders for the 2010 edition of Canada Reads)? And since Whitlock himself brings up Steven Galloway, how are we to categorize that author’s 2008 novel The Cellist of Sarajevo? It’s a story-driven book, but it also has frankly “literary” properties: a weighty subject (the Siege of Sarajevo), well-drawn characters, and evident attention to the prose on a line-by-line basis. (Whitlock might characterize this as a hybrid, or a Not-Quite Novel, but I consider it to be generally better than that.)

Recent years have seen a retreat from the kind of obscurantist anti-novel that began in the Modernist era and found its apogee in the French nouveau roman as practiced by authors like Alain Robbe-Grillet. In its stead, we are witnessing a resurgence – and newfound critical acceptance – of novels that privilege story over technical experiment – witness the critical accolades being heaped upon Stephen King’s latest novel, Under the Dome. King is a self-admitted commercial writer, and it’s unlikely the broad spectrum of his readers would be entertained by, say, the prolix digressions and postmodern approach of David Foster Wallace (despite the fact that, to a certain sensibility, Wallace is giddily entertaining). This, of course, is Whitlock’s point: different writers employ different styles and appeal to different audiences. But I wonder whether the broad categories he sets out may in fact be somewhat more permeable than he seems to suggest they are.

*It was Whoopi Goldberg. What idiot was in charge of fact checking that? … Oh. My bad.

A literary endurance contest

June 2, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

infinite-jestSome people run marathons, some people participate in dance contests, some people walk from Thunder Bay to Manhattan. In each case, the endeavour requires bountiful reserves of stamina and perseverance. Now The Morning News – the folks responsible for the annual Tournament of Books – have come up with a peculiarly literary test of endurance. They’re challenging one and all to commit to reading David Foster Wallace’s mammoth 1996 novel Infinite Jest over the summer of 2009, and to report on the experience online.

Called Infinite Summer, the project kicks off on June 21 and runs until September 22. That’s 92 days to make it through approximately 1,000 pages (plus copious endnotes), which works out to 75 pages per week. “No sweat,” say the challenge organizers. That’s what you think, says yr. humble correspondent.

Because, of course, we’re not talking about just any 1,000 pages (plus endnotes). We’re talking about 1,000 pages of David Foster Wallace’s famously complex, digressive, serpentine prose. Reading Wallace is not the job of an afternoon, nor can it be accomplished in a state of distraction or inattention (trying to read even his shorter pieces during a commute on the subway is likely to trigger some sort of mental collapse). Wallace is a notoriously difficult writer, who makes serious demands on his readers. As Wyatt Mason noted about the short story collection Oblivion: “Wallace, after all, whether or not he coats it in aesthetic caramel, is demanding that readers play his game: my house, my rules. Don’t like it? You don’t have to play.” Not for nothing does the final note on the Infinite Summer list of things to do prior to the kick-off date read, “Finish or abandon all books, hobbies, and/or relationships before June 21st.”

Still, if you’re ambitious, if you’ve always meant to get around to reading Infinite Jest but haven’t found the time or the motivation, or if you’ve tried and failed to make it through (ahem), this may be just the challenge you’ve been looking for.