Surreal short stories confuse late-stage capitalism

sad advertisement
Ennis Cehic
Vintage, $32.99

Sad advertisement. By Ennis Cehic.

The eminent Marxist critic Fredric Jameson once said that post-modern capitalism is unrepresentable.

The realism of Balzac and Zola was equal to capturing the upheavals of industrialism and the class struggle, of newspapers and coal mines, the melting pot of cities; but the structures and vectors of late capitalism, hidden but omnipresent, distorting time and space, escape any attempt to describe them. It may be true. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try. One way to do this is to abandon any notion of totality; focus on the iconic or the metaphorical.

Advertising, for example, with its relentless post-scarcity manipulation and the inflamation of desires.
Inflammation, rather; I’ll give you an itch, then you can pay me to scratch it. In Ennis Ćehić’s debut collection, the realm of editors and influencers, horror-movie-adjacent market research projects, and people who are far too online, is an itchy, scratchy place.

The content page is much more comprehensive than one would expect for a book of this size. Many of the exhibits are no longer than two pages, and many not much longer. (Another way of representing without totality: the fragment.) Would it be easy to talk about sixty-second spots and TikTok videos? Perhaps. But there is a set-up/payoff model here that is not far from these examples of conciseness, and in any case there are parodies of advertisements and the “Instafamous” who want their life to be like advertisements, and advertise their lives (“Every morning a young man named Cooper steps onto the balcony…Wearing nothing but Calvin Klein briefs, he closes his eyes and meditatively moves his athletic body, stretching his limbs.”)

It is not a discontinuous narrative. While the workplace stories all seem to take place at the same agency, they might as well not be; the characters do not overlap. But the themes and patterns are definitely coming back. The shape of Sad advertisement may seem to mimic the compulsiveness of device-dominated times. Another way of representing the unrepresentable is by extrapolation and fantasy, and sad advertisement to his Black mirror-ish side: Ivan in Ad Nausea (see what he did there?) has a chip implanted in his brain that makes him immune to advertising; elsewhere a branding logo, a heart on a T-shirt, begins to speak; the strange also makes its appearance in Feelings where a Frenchman abuses his iPhone in various ways to determine if he has feelings (the evidence suggests; the experience itself suggests the hate that comes with addiction). A muse pays a visit; a team competing for a big account gets a creative boost after praying to Kvasir, the Norse god of inspiration, who is grateful because no one has prayed to him for four hundred years.

There are references to coke and prostitutes, but as the title suggests, Ćehić’s publicists are not the starving hedonists of myth, but a sad, neurotic crew (“A peculiar melancholy lurked among the writers”) : there is David in Vacui Horror who builds a wall of books around her office to exclude her colleagues, and Lydia in Light switch who has two cups on her desk, one marked I did nothing and the other I did everything – at the end of each day, she chooses one or the other to drink from.

One stereotype they respect is that of the frustrated artist; content features the souls of the editors coming together to talk about how their owners went astray: “Damir’s soul, which took on a yellowish hue, was shattered that Damir has now worked such long hours and no longer has continued his mystery thriller at home.” And, overwhelming: “Sophie wanted to be paid so much that she hardly wrote poetry anymore.

Thus, it is inevitable that their efforts aspire to the condition of art, if “art” means “useless”: some stories tell of clever and memorable campaigns that don’t actually change units, or whose usefulness consists in get bettors to appreciate their loved ones, without changing units. The sting here is that it’s not like making art and being an artist and the art world itself is as pure as all that, to put it mildly: Meta Ennis Part I is told from the perspective of the book itself, engaged in a surveillance operation of potential buyers. (Writers have readers or audiences; advertisers have demographics. And publishers have…what?)

Ćehić was born in Bosnia and came to Australia, via Germany, in the mid-1990s, and among the satire and fantasies are glimpses of a harsher reality. But he also pokes fun at writers who offer up their own identities as, well, as a marketing ploy, not to mention readers who love to feast on tragedy (“War is sweet to those who haven’t been through it”). The subject is raised but he wants us to know that he will not exploit it. Some things are not for sale.

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