Po­ets’ power drawn from pop­u­lar cul­ture


The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ed Wright Ed Wright

By Max Barry Hod­der & Stoughton, 400pp, $29.99 T’S quite of­ten said in Aus­tralian pub­lish­ing cir­cles that satire doesn’t sell. If true it seems quite odd. Our lo­cal tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion fea­tures satire heav­ily. Shows such as Kath & Kim, The Chaser and Sum­mer Heights High are some of its great­est suc­cesses in re­cent years. In in­ter­na­tional fic­tion, satir­i­cally spir­ited books such as Howard Ja­cob­son’s The Fin­kler Ques­tion, She­han Karunati­laka’s Chi­na­man or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad have won the Booker, Com­mon­wealth and Pulitzer prizes re­spec­tively.

What does this say, then, about the Aus­tralian reader? Are we more earnest than other lit­er­ary mar­kets, the quest for high se­ri­ous­ness a fi­nal residue of the cul­tural cringe? Are we too obe­di­ent as a cul­ture? Is it that we don’t like to laugh at our­selves? Or is it that we pre­fer to do our laugh­ing in com­pany in front of a screen?

The ca­reer of Max Barry is an in­ter­est­ing case in point. The Melbourne-born author has penned a won­der­fully in­ven­tive se­ries of nov­els that satirise the en­croach­ments of cor­po­rate be­hav­iour, mar­ket­ing and their jar­gon on good sense. His de­but, Syrup, was about a mar­ket­ing grad­u­ate on the make at Coca-Cola, while Jennifer Govern­ment was a bril­liant con­fec­tion ex­plor­ing the chang­ing power re­la­tions be­tween cor­po­ra­tions and the na­tion-state. For any­one in­ter­ested in bag­ging out the stu­pidi­ties of cor­po­rate logic, Com­pany is hard to beat, while Ma­chine Man was a riff on the cor­po­rate pol­i­tics of build­ing a sixmil­lion-dol­lar man. Yet in many ways Barry has been more suc­cess­ful in the US than here. Syrup is about to be re­leased as a film in the US. His lat­est novel, Lex­i­con, has al­ready been op­tioned by Hol­ly­wood di­rec­tor Matthew Vaughn, whose cred­its in­clude X-Men: First Class. A Su­per­man comic char­ac­ter was drawn read­ing Jennifer Govern­ment; cul­tural cred­i­bil­ity in­deed.

One rea­son, per­haps, for this suc­cess in the US is the way Barry draws from non-lit­er­ary tra­di­tions such as comic books. Lex­i­con, for in­stance, draws from X-Men, which fea­tures an acad­emy of mu­tants, each with spe­cial skills. Barry takes this idea of a school for freaks and turns it into some­thing truly orig­i­nal, an idea that would have Plato and his philoso­pher kings turn­ing in their graves. The skills that at­tract the at­ten­tions of Lex­i­con’s acad­emy are ver­bal, namely the abil­i­ties to per­suade and re­sist be­ing per­suaded. The grad­u­ates are re­ferred to as po­ets. They learn how to as­cribe peo­ple to a so­phis­ti­cated set of per­son­al­ity cat­e­gories, each with its own ver­bal sets of vul­ner­a­bil­ity. The de­ploy­ment of th­ese words avails the po­ets of pow­ers sim­i­lar to the vam­pire skill of glam­our­ing on dis­play in the TV se­ries True Blood.

It’s a neat con­cept that plays into Barry’s in­ter­ests in the tac­tics of sales and mar­ket­ing that per­vade many of his other nov­els. The story flips be­tween Emily, a teenage hustler who is dis­cov­ered by the po­ets earn­ing a liv­ing from card tricks on the streets of San Fran­cisco and in­vited to the acad­emy, and Wil, who in­ad­ver­tently be­comes a per­son of in­ter­est to the po­ets at con­sid­er­able cost to him­self.

To say much more about the plot would be to run the risk of spoil­ing. But from Emily’s en­try into the school of per­sua­sion, the reader is drawn into a crack-paced thriller that trav­els from the US to the min­ing city of Bro­ken Hill. The ac­tion is sup­ple­mented with con­cocted news­pa­per ar­ti­cles, in­ter­net dis­cus­sion board threads, mil­i­tary memos, and en­cy­clo­pe­dia and dic­tionary en­tries. It’s a tech­nique as old as John Dos Pas­sos but ef­fec­tive none­the­less in help­ing to ac­cel­er­ate the pace and make Lex­i­con dif­fi­cult to put down.

The satire is less ex­plicit here than in Barry’s pre­vi­ous works. It’s a sign of his can­ni­ness and in­ven­tive­ness. Rather than flog­ging the same horse over and over again, he has drifted into new ter­ri­tory that leans more to­wards the con­cep­tual play­ful­ness of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion. There were signs of this in Ma­chine Man but here he has pulled it off more suc­cess­fully. There are echoes of writ­ers such as Wil­liam Gib­son, China Mieville or James Hawes, who all at times de­ploy the thriller mode in the pur­suit of ideas and mis­chief.

Yet Barry is his own man. It’s hard to think of any­one else play­ing with genre and nar­ra­tive in the same way, trac­ing the log­i­cal con­se­quences of skewed ax­ioms he de­rives from the ab­sur­di­ties of con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety. Lex­i­con may not be high lit­er­a­ture but it’s smart and tons of fun.

Max Barry takes a satir­i­cal stick to cor­po­rate and mar­ket­ing ex­cesses

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