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.

31 Days of Stories 2009, Day 11: “CommComm” by George Saunders

August 11, 2009 by · 3 Comments 

From In Persuasion Nation.

persuasionI really liked George Saunders the first time I read him, when he was called Kurt Vonnegut. Saunders shares with his literary ancestor a penchant for satire that is steeped in American popular culture, but that eschews the viciousness of a Bret Easton Ellis or the cynicism of a David Foster Wallace. He also shares with Philip K. Dick the habit of devising brilliant premises for his fictions, then crapping out in the execution.

“CommComm,” from his 2006 collection In Persuasion Nation, begins with what looks like a brilliant, but ultimately doomed, premise. A military unit devoted to public spin is called upon to cover up the murder of “a shitload of beavers,” a poisoning that is explained away through a blatant and obvious tautology:

I say we don’t kill beavers, we harvest them, because otherwise they nibble through our Pollution Control Devices (PCDs) and polluted water flows out of our Retention Area and into the Eisenhower Memorial Wetland, killing beavers.

“That makes sense” says Jillian.

Well, it doesn’t, and the fact of its nonsensical nature is the first of Saunders’ clearly satirical jabs at American culture, with its affinity for acronyms and its illogical approach to rationalizing away anything that runs counter to its craven desires. So far, so underwhelming.

What sets “CommComm” apart from Saunders’ more reductive satires is its narrative turn, which occurs halfway through the story, and takes a reader aback in the manner of an M. Night Shyamalan film. But, unlike Shyamalan’s affected or unearned plot twists, the trajectory of Saunders’ narrative feels completely natural, as thought its inevitability should have been clear from the story’s first line.

“CommComm” brings together several concerns that run throughout Saunders’ collection: the unconscious religiosity that undergirds American society, the willingness to explain away moral problems through politically correct language or craven businesspeak, and the almost psychopathic imperative to get ahead at all costs. But unlike such tired allegories as “My Amendment” or “”93990,” “CommComm” begins as a straightforward satire of our modern militaristic society, then transforms into something entirely different – a heartfelt meditation on mortality and the debts we leave unpaid when we die.

“Heartfelt” is the positive way of spinning the manner in which the story unfolds; “sentimental” is the less charitable description. But, for this reader, what rescues Saunders’ story from charges of sentimentality is its pervasive perversity: the barbed wit that provokes lines such as, “He says this weekend’s reënactment was on the hill determined to be the most topographically similar to Calvary in the entire Northeast. I ask who he did. He says the guy who lent Christ his mule on Palm Sunday. Rimney says it’s just like Giff to let an unemployed Jew borrow his ass.”

But over and above the story’s trenchant wit, Saunders effectively counterpoints the militaristic, anti-spiritual predilections of modern Western civilization with the almost inescapable impulse to behave in a way that underscores our shared humanity. In so doing, he elevates “CommComm” above his other, less effective snapshots of our modern condition.