In an era of niche marketing, even an audience as miniscule as the readership of literary fiction can be attractive to the right marketer. Witness the book parties and poetry readings sponsored by liquor brands seeking cachet among post-grad party animals. By these lights, Stories From the Tube could have been the perfect product placement opportunity for the right liqueur or philosopher-endorsed ale.
In this debut short-story collection, author Matthew Sharpe draws inspiration for his tales from our culture’s compulsive story-telling machine: advertising. Copy from TV commercials serve as the epigraphs for tales that go “behind” the slick surface of spots. They tell the continuing story of advertising’s disposable icons. It’s an act of literary imagination brought to you–literally–by Tide. The mind boggles at the potential branding opportunities available here. Maybe for the second edition.
In direct contrast to the ’80s and early ’90s, when whole novels consisted of ecstatic Whitmanesque catalogs of brand names, Stories From the Tube doesn’t reveal the brands whose commercials inspired the collection. Indeed, Sharpe has written a book about our ad-mediated world that barely mentions brands at all, an absence that gives these stories an extra layer of unreality, removing them from our label- and logo-plastered consumer society. His effort to take us into the lives of the pod people of pitchdom is nothing like Calvin Klein, whose new ad characters for cKone have a cyber afterlife on the Internet.
Instead, the author lifts heroes and heroines from TV’s 30-second sagas and transforms them into the evil twins of their commercial originals. In the story “Doctor Mom,” named for the memorable maternal medic in the cough syrup ad, Mom really is a doctor. Having lost her license, she spends one long summer compulsively performing surgery on her only son. (“If I hear one more question, young man, it’s general anesthesia for you.”) The “no hassle” salesman for the “American car with integrity” becomes a pervert who trades bargains for sex. A “different kind of company” indeed.
In this parallel universe, the smell of morning coffee reminds a mother how much hate she feels for the daughter who’s moved back home–not love, like the coffee ad jingle suggests. Middle-aged parents make rueful jokes about pushing their fanatically physically fit, morally facile teen daughter down the stairs. They need to be protected from her, not, as the original ad copy has it, the other way around.
Sharpe’s stories are strategic misreadings of commercials, perverse where the world depicted by ads is wholesome, sinister where it is friendly, deadpan where it is sentimental. Nothing in these absurdist tales is as seen on TV. On the book’s dust jacket, Francis Ford Coppola obligingly if inexplicably says, “I like Matthew Sharpe’s concept in Stories From the Tube. I think looking behind the selling of products to the larger personal issues can say a lot about our society.” I think so, too. But I’m not sure this book accomplishes that lofty task.
In story after story, Sharpe “reveals” the banality of commercials by treating them literally. Thus, a perfume ad that shows a woman gazing longingly at a movie screen turns into a story about a woman who briefly morphs into Marilyn Monroe while watching a movie. This makes for interesting literary special effects, but it doesn’t tell us diddly about what lurks behind the “selling of products.” The process by which a consumer transfers a desire to be Marilyn Monroe into a decision to buy a certain brand perfume is more magical than this book’s most surreal scenarios. Sharpe’s “concept” for Stories From the Tube is just that: a concept. The best, most moving stories in the collection would work just as well without their ad-copy subtext. And the ones that confront advertising head on are didactic and obvious.
In “A Bird Accident,” a car ad that uses the legend and music of Charlie Parker yields a story about an ad guy–“Let’s call him Saatchi&Saatchi Worldwide”–who repeatedly crushes the wailing saxophonist under the wheels of his Cadillac. Soon, “other ad men are thinking of hitting Armstrong and Ellington and Tatum and Gillespie and Davis with their cars. It won’t have the same oomph as hitting Parker with a Cadillac, but in advertising, second-best counts for a lot. ” Advertising, see, is like a vampire, sucking the lifeblood from the real art it compulsively appropriates. But you knew that already. It does, however, seem just a little disingenuous for a writer to trash the medium that provides his sales hook.
After all, what better way for a newcomer to attract attention to his work in the dying art of the printed word than to glom on to a popular communications form people know. The wonder isn’t that Matthew Sharpe has found his inspiration in stories from the tube. The wonder is that there is any other kind.