by Ennis Ćehić
Vintage Australia/Penguin Australia
Published March 2022
In July 2021, the American billionaire Jeff Bezos completed the first private flight to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere and back in a spacecraft unapologetically resembling a giant penis. New Shepard, as it was called, carried Amazon’s owner, his brother Mark (Jeff’s spitting image), an 82-year-old ex-pilot, and a young Dutchman whose enthusiasm for the 8-minute space trip cost him $28 million. In the press conference after the landing, a grinning Bezos thanked all the Amazon customers around the world, saying, ‘you guys paid for this’. The audience indulged the good humour of one of the wealthiest men on the planet. Haha! None taken!
I for one think that Bezos was funny in that moment, and that he deserved the laugh. Like most tycoons, Bezos knows that his ultra-brand rules our lives and that he could say anything without risking his prospects. The tedious thing, and the real punchline, is everyone else pretending that the quintessential American farce – the former bookstore that is now pioneering drones and space tourism – was over their heads. The press conference could have beeen a satirical scene from one of many recent short stories (collections by Joshua Cohen, Irenosen Okojie, and Yxta Maya Murray come to mind) which refract the world as managed under extreme capitalism by letting the vulgar comedy of our times speak for itself. In this trend, abandoning irony seems to mimic the helplessness of the contemporary subject in the face of capitalist structures that normalise round-the-clock surveillance, privatise the environment, and sell every scrap of every individual to digital economy.
Ennis Ćehić’s debut collection adopts a similar aesthetic response to corporatism’s love of dangerous play. Sadvertising teems with lives saturated by ads in a sinister loop of fun and games. They are, as Rainer, an office-worker in ‘Versuchs-kaninchen’ (meaning, guinea pig) ruminates, ‘a poetic expression of a universal malaise,’ just before learning that he has been selected as a case study for a frightening surveillance ploy via an advertising device that collects his urinal data and sells it for unknown purposes. The fate of this pensive poet (Rainer being an in-joke) is one of the many quiet miseries in fifty long, short and flash stories that range from realistic to tech-dystopian, each prefaced in bold face with something like a by-line: ‘Kim doesn’t know that today will be the day of her greatest rebellion’; or ‘Okay, here’s a somewhat true story for you.’
The shorter pieces tease out half-wrought scenarios; in ‘NMBA’, a celebrity comes up with the idea of a start-up to ban bad commercials, but the author stops short of adding more flesh to the skeleton, just enough detail for the relief (or the melancholia) to poke through the surface. We never hear what the disgruntled celebrity does to redeem future advertising, except that she feels depressed for a couple of days before having the epiphany that turns her into the new hero of the ad world. In ‘Crossover,’ a Steve Jobs figure disappears on one of his long walks, only to return in three years, claiming that he was sucked into a shaft that transported him to the pluriverse. Lydia, office worker in ‘Interrupter,’ measures her self-worth daily by her perceived productivity at work. If she feels virtuous, she drinks from a mug that says ‘I have done everything’ and if not, she goes for one with ‘I have done nothing’. No ambiguity there, until two colleagues insert a third mug in between that says ‘I have done enough’ for a bit of office humour. The story ends in a tableau: Lydia holding the mug stunned, telling herself that ‘everything is pointless’ as colleagues look on with concern.
These cumulative endings insist on a theory about what happens to us in a psychosphere propelled by the ubiquity of algorithms – the perpetual half-realisation that this damn thing is running my life and I still can’t help wanting it. So we might, like Ćehić’s characters, brood on our paralysis by the information economy in its seamless loop of sampling, packaging and delivering our private desires to our doors. But what else can we say besides the obvious cultural diagnosis and the self-affirming circuit of the minimalist style in the age of distractions? Is there a way to argue for a technique that is not about the internet, our lord and saviour, at least not solely?
Sadvertising’s finer achievement lies in its longer stories, such as the autofictive ‘Meta Ennis Part I’, where the writer-narrator, Ennis, is caught between the longing for artistic creativity and the pressure of economic precarity. He tells the story of Ina, a young woman from the war-torn Sarajevo of the 1990s who abandons her artistic calling to become a successful corporate designer in London. Ennis imagines different endings in which Ina’s loss can unfold, as if to use it as a template for his own his life project. None of these options are terrible, if he could spare a little unfulfillment.
I won’t preach and lecture Ina on the reasons why she shouldn’t pursue advertising. I love advertising, that’s obvious – but I also know what happens to the artist in advertising. What I must become is the sublime intervention she seeks; the meaningful coincidence.
In the end, like a character in a John Fowles novel, Ennis meets his protagonist at a bar to discuss the ideological tension between art and advertising by telling her a story about another artist that he met at another bar in Melbourne. An ‘advertising stereotype,’ the woman in Melbourne wonders ‘how many stories, poems and novels she could have written by now.’ She then dramatically gets up and says, ‘Never choose security over art, especially if your art comes from need.’ As if to emphasise that it arises from this very need, the collection presents a few more of these situations. In the speculative ‘Meta Ennis Part II’, the narrator is a book (presumably Sadvertising) that speaks to the reader from an aisle of a bookstore about luring a subject of a gimmick behavioural study to buy it. The encounter between the consumer and the literary product reveals something of the psychology of cultural judgement based on the writer’s identity.
He flipped me around and read my blurb. I could feel his muscular fingers. He then spent a few seconds ogling my author’s face, examining his eyes. I hoped my author’s ethnic surname, reeking of that grief-stricken place they call the Balkans wouldn’t turn him off. Luckily, it didn’t. He was holding me firmly and when I felt the calm beat of his pulse, nothing else mattered.
This excessive self-reflexivity is key to the collection’s comedy. Ćehić returns to ‘the narrow limits between advertising and literature,’ routinely traversed by some of the big money writers of the Cold War generation – Rushdie, Carey, Amis, and DeLillo. What the admen of the literary world did in advertising is perhaps less of a query than what their literary success reveals about cultural consumption during a period when western capitalism became the only dominant political narrative. If advertising is ideologically suspect, where does that leave us with our reading habits and writer-heroes?
Mood, as the title of the collection suggests, might be a key to appreciating the link between corporate work and the so-called ‘creative industries’ in the current cultural arena. Mobilised by digital platforms, the expansive creative class carries its own range of economic emotions – not least the sad appetite for ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ for think pieces, and its compulsion to pronounce literary preferences or denounce writers with disguised sanctimony. It remains an open question to me whether the disappointment of liberal progressives with J. K. Rowling, to cite one ongoing controversy, is more about her transphobic positions or a reaction to the feeling of the loss of a brand that suffused the imagination of two generations of Western kids with books, films, merchandise.
The figure of the desanctified writer pops up everywhere in Sadvertising, as the mercenaries of information economy – copywriters, creative directors, brand designers. ‘War Room’ imagines an ad agency that applies corporate brainstorming methods to pressing social and ecological problems. Elite office workers (the ‘ideators’) are groomed over a month of ascetic practices, like fasting, abstinence from social media, having their smartphones smashed into pieces by a sizable axe before entering the ‘war room’ for a boot camp of free thinking – all to no avail. No amount of spiritual cleansing can lift them out of their ‘appallingly unfit’ state for public and environmental good.
Real-world problem solving wasn’t their cup of tea. They were much better suited to capitalist interests – figuring out how to raise awareness of oat milk, or trying to change the perception of Jägerbombs, that sort of thing.
The sheer repetition of these scenarios is a little punishing – and something of an editorial lapse. But the post-ironist stance builds up Ćehić’s point about capitalism’s tendency to co-opt satire. It is as if nothing can disturb us enough to slow our capitulation to digital body informatics. The bereaved man in ‘Archiving’ plugs the tip of his finger into a literal cloud, like a hot air balloon with a hose attached to it, on top of a mountain so that all the recorded information about his late partner can enter his body. The new cyborg would bring the fond memories to life, no more ‘trapped as craps of data, JPEGs, GIFs, or .MOVs.’ The welcome key change comes with another anti-biographical take in the last story, ‘Meta Ennis Part III’. The collection ends by caricaturing writing from ethnicity and the demands that places on sincerity. Ennis reappears as a refugee from Bosnia, who like the author, spends some years in Germany before migrating to Australia as a teenager. At some point, he feels that he is ‘gazed at’ by an implied author, an ‘I’ figure, who intervenes and retells Ennis’ story as it stands true to his life. Closing on this note, Ćehić makes a statement about a certain impasse in progressive literary culture, with one foot in an idiolect that champions transgression and fluidity, and one in the rigidity of modalities of being.
I don’t think it bothers you that everybody mines their autobiographies today – especially those migrant writers, he said. What bothers you is mining yours and finding nothing.
Well, the story is told, whether to find anything or not.