Poets’ power drawn from popular culture
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