24 September 2011

Ad Absurdum

I am obviously missing Mad Men more than I realised because the protagonists of the two books I read while I was on holiday in New York, Palladio by Jonathan "The Privileges" Dee and Charles McLeod's American Weather, were both ad men. The two books couldn't have been more different, however.

Jonathan Dee's book The Privileges was draped across the window of Daunt Books for most of last summer and I knew it was the kind of book I would like: young, privileged American couple fall in love, get married very young, move to Manhattan, and live out a privileged existence, which only starts to spiral out of control once their kids become teenagers. Palladio was written ten years earlier, in 2002, and although the themes are different, the novel has a very similar feel.

Molly Howe is a pretty, popular teenager growing up in a small town in upstate New York in the late 1980s, but when the whole town seems to find out about her affair with one of her father's friends, her parents shun her and she skips town to Berkeley to stay with her older brother. There, she meets a history of art student called John Wheelwright and they have a passionate relationship until she skips town again. Through alternating chapters, we meet John in the early 2000s, now a Madison Avenue creative for a top agency and with a successful, intelligent, lawyer girlfriend and, seemingly a perfect life. But when the "advertising visionary" Mal Osbourne offers him the job-of-a-lifetime at Palladio, the eponymous, innovative new agency he is setting up in South Carolina.

I liked the chapters describing Molly's childhood and teenage years, her messed up relationship with her family, especially her mother and her brother, who later turns evangelical Christian and tells her she is damned to hell for her lustful, sinful acts. I also enjoyed the story of John and Molly's relationship (inevitably, their paths collide again in the present day) but the parts of the novel involving Mal Osbourne and Palladio felt like Dee was trying to rewrite The Fountainhead for the advertising industry. The work is satirical in places, of course, but I felt these sections--presumably the cornerstone of the whole novel--didn't grip me or entertain me. I found the ending to be an anti-climax too (the same was true of The Privileges, although I liked that more overall).

As for American Weather, its protagonist Jim Haskin is quite another kind of ad man. Jim runs his own San Francisco-based agency, American Public, although his job mainly seems to consist of handling Etsy-related disputes among his overgrown-teenager employees while his sexy VP makes the important decisions. Jim's wife has been in a coma for months after she reacted badly to one of the antidepressants Jim's company was pimping; oh, and the insurance company won't pay up because they say propensity to this was a "pre-existing condition." Meanwhile, his lonely teenage son Connor has been shipped off to boarding school and writes letters to his father, which we read every other chapter or so. He expresses vague and just-about-caring sentiments about his family from time to time but it feels like he's much more concerned about getting a hot tennis star to pimp a particular product at a gala, or making sure he has the latest eco-friendly gadgets. Some of Jim's childhood friends him up with a demand for money and he comes up with the genius idea of televising death row executions, paying the criminals (well, ensuring the money goes to their favourite family member/friend) and tattooing them with the brands of the sponsors before they get the lethal injection.

Jim is definitely Patrick Bateman with some Don Draper thrown in--he isn't exactly unlikable but he is definitely sociopathic and as with Bateman in American Psycho, we are privy to Jim's every last meticulous, detached thought. He name drops, he brand drops, he's a control freak and just doesn't seem to be able to relate to people. Yet everyone thinks he's a success--a star. American Weather isn't violent like American Psycho but it is just as dark. It's also very funny. My favourite scene was probably when Jim decides to hire a call girl, makes her show up to an expensive hotel room, asks how much it will take for her to work all night, rather than going to her next "appointment" after two hours. Just when she's starting to get scared that he's going to do something really kinky or even dangerous, he sits her down at a computer and asks her to type every single thing she has ever wanted (material, immaterial, general, specific) into a document. Focus groups? Who needs a stinkin' focus group?

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