Other Voices Bookshelf

by C.W. Cannon

Appears in Other Voices #35

Review of Scorch, by A.D. Nauman, Soft Skull Press, 2001


Dystopic fiction needs constantly to update itself. A former era’s dystopic warning siren can be the next era’s affirmative propaganda. George Orwell’s once prescient 1984, which continues to mope around on many a high school reading list, is a case in point. Significantly, 1984 has a place in A.D. Nauman’s dystopia for our times, Scorch, a formative classic of a fully privatized American economy—a society whose CEOs and loyal employees congratulate themselves on finally having licked “Big Brother government.”

If totalitarian ideologies informed Orwell’s fear, the trend informing Nauman’s fear of the future has been called “market populism.”  In a piece in the October 30, 2000 issue of The Nation, Tom Frank explains market populism as the view that “markets” express the people’s will more accurately than our boring, generally ignored (albeit highly packaged) electoral processes. And according to Wall Street Journal ideologue James Taranto, “thanks to the democracy of the market…the U.S. is now closer to [the] Marxian ideal than any society in history.” In fact, Marxist theorist, Theodor Adorno, recognized this trend long ago when he wrote that Americans’ vaunted “freedom of choice” was becoming “freedom to choose what is everywhere the same.” In other words, advertising is becoming the reigning aesthetic of mass culture. In Nauman’s America, this phenomenon has been completed: all cultural production is purely and proudly just advertising.

Nauman’s Everywoman protagonist, Arel Ashe, begins the novel in a relatively promising social position, occupying a cubicle in the “adstories” department of one of the world’s three of four megacompanies. “Adstories” are all that is left of narrative art. They are sit-com length stories adhering to a number of rules, the cardinal of which being, of course, sell the product. The great strength of Nauman’s novel is that it is so scary, so sad, and yet so hilarious at the same time. Here’s a typical adstory plot, designed to sell plastic surgery: a poor (but not homeless), beautiful Latino girl is raped by a gang of twenty-nine Latino boys who “throw her onto various car hoods” and graphically brutalize her in a variety of visually catching and “original” ways. They leave her for dead, and the famous and handsome plastic surgeon (Dr. Hampton Drane) stumbles onto her and whisks her off to his special clinic. Meanwhile her beautiful older sister has won one of the company lotteries and hired a sexy and buxom blonde police detective (the police are private, fee-for-service corporations) to locate her missing sister. All the women end up at the clinic where they fall in love with Dr. Drane and compete for his attentions. This, in turn, attracts “hordes of new male clients with plenty of money for little adjustments to their noses, chins, dicks.”

The problem with our protagonist is—wouldn’t you know it—she doesn’t quite fit in. She’s not as “self-motivated” on the job as she should be, not “cooperative” or “focused” enough, not enough of a “go-getter.” She recites to herself, “You can do it!” and tries to “own her own happiness.” But, tragically, these mantras fail to convince her that her unhappiness working two jobs to cover apartment, car, and highway use payments—not to mention the expense of staying in fashion up to the minute—is entirely her own fault. A vocabulary of dissent is not available to her, however. People stopped reading books a long time ago. Nobody burned them, though, so she stumbles on a stash of old dusty tomes and begins struggling through some of them. The question the reader must wonder is whether Arel will be able to transcend the received notions, the “common sense,” of her society and find the ability first to imagine, and then to act. “How do you think thoughts that wouldn’t occur to you? How do you believe what you don’t believe?”

The deck is stacked against her, of course. A common adstory device is the “scorch,” a character-type whose final humiliation rounds out each adstory’s snappy climax. A scorch can be a “nerdy weakling or a brainy bitch or a silly do-gooder.” Why would  Arel want to be a scorch herself? She’s already not quite attractive enough, not very tidy. Reading books and using big outdated words contained therein will only make her look even more like a misfit. What’s more, such behavior can be dangerous. One could “alienate one’s co-workers” and get fired. This puts one within reach of homelessness. As it happens, Arel Ashe’s world is being rocked by a new social movement—the dominant ideology of “market populism” is being challenged by a more old-fashioned right-wing petit-bourgeois populism (I guess I’m a scorch, too). The S.W.A.U.T. movement (Satan Walks Among Us Today) has identified the reason so many good people are unhappy. The morally degenerate homeless are preying on hard-working Americans, mugging them, gunning down former co-workers, raising prices by shoplifting. As if this weren’t threatening enough, the “hidden homeless”—those not yet fired but likely to be, the ones in outdated clothes loitering in the malls without buying anything—are also targeted. Can Arel beat this clock? Can she effect a change in consciousness by sabotaging adstories before she gets fired and becomes homeless (hidden or otherwise) herself? Perhaps her greatest obstacle, and a triumph of character study for Nauman, is Arel’s own sense of self-worth, dictated as it is by the society in which she lives.

An openly didactic radical novel like Nauman’s leaves itself particularly vulnerable to theoretical broadsides. I’m not in complete agreement with all of Nauman’s sociological conclusions. Mainly, all the laughs aside, I think Nauman’s a little too pessimistic. Her vision of the relationship between mass culture and its consumers, and her view of human agency in general, seems too cynically closed. But the glittering completeness of Nauman’s shiny dystopia is so detailed—the education system is especially plausible/hilarious/scary—that such reservations strike one only after the reading’s done.