By Chris Eaton
One of the most common lines drawn between art and advertising (and its political counterpart, propaganda), is the one between a passive and an active response. We engage with art; we merely accept what the ad has to say. This doesn’t mean we accept its claims as being true (art is sincere, commercial/political speech is a lie), only that we let its message wash over us. It is opium. Marshall McLuhan once observed that the point of advertising wasn’t to make us want to buy a product, but to make us feel good about ourselves and the product we’ve already bought. Advertisers want us to feel good about ourselves. A happy, fulfilled and comfortable life only costs a bit of money.
Chris Eaton’s The Inactivist is a short, sharply-written satire on the culture of the ad. Its hero is Kitchen, a copywriter for an ad agency in the City. Very little happens in the book. Kitchen breaks up with one girlfriend, gets another, and breaks up with her. Kitchen fails at relationships with women because he fails at relating to reality. Like his co-workers, he is so engrossed in his own life that he has “no time for anything external.”
The advertising world is an alternative reality, wonderfully evoked in an opening prologue that has the Michelin Man, Grimace, and the Great Root Bear in a weight-loss competition. This disengagement leaves him essentially inactive despite his hustling lifestyle, and impotent despite his lusty libido (references to masturbation run throughout the book like a leitmotif). The women he meets want to change the world. Kitchen can’t understand why they don’t want to just feel good about themselves. As his guru puts it, “If we’re not happy, Kitchen, we’re just not trying hard enough.”
Eaton’s style is a perfect fit to his subject, which is to say it is almost all style. His word-painting is Dali-esque: striking, precisely rendered, and at times even surreal:
His wardrobe seemed burned to his skin by a nuclear blast, futuristic and tight. His eyes were a pigsty, strapped with haphazardly tossed veins and mucousy debris.
She kissed him as if he were a shot glass, throwing her head back and breathing in fits.
Trapeza was more than a woman. She was a mobile news unit. Her hair required careful editing, or else it went off in all directions like rumour. Her mouth seemed built only for the proper distillation of coffee. And she’d been working in radio journalism so long she’d grown a signal tower from the tip of her forehead, which she plucked each morning with vetting tweezers so that it was nearly unnoticeable. Through that satellite receptor she’d developed several beliefs and idiosyncrasies: her sentences were short and constructed mostly of verbs; nothing seemed important unless it involved citizens; she’d adopted a logic based on the Truth of deep, ovary-tickling voices.
In that last passage you see the tendency of Eaton’s imagination to just take off, taking its metaphors literally and building an alternative sur-reality. The dustjacket mentions Coupland and Palahniuk as models, but the real influence seems to be Nathanael West and William S. Burroughs. You can’t read a passage like this without hearing them:
The mock-homeless kids – just bored snots from the burbs – descended on the flaming bills, peeing on the oxidating gifts from above, and ran off with their pockets full of the charred, stomach-wrenching stuff, chased for blocks by a pack of territorial gutter dogs driven wild by the stench of hot piss. The casually dressed execs – ties balled in their pockets, dates hanging off them with Windsor knot fingers – let their crumpled parking tickets carom off the lemon-jellied curb and climb into their SUVs for the short drive home. And Kitchen made off with a stray murder of coins, ducking through the crawling traffic to the waterfront, where he might at least find some semblance of home. Peace. A grey-yellow foam was eating slowly at the boardwalk supports. Someone had thankfully smashed most of the lamps by whipping their empties at them, and the white and brown glass scattered the grass like wild rice. A couple of men were fucking inside the large, hollow, iron head meant to commemorate something forgotten, and although Kitchen couldn’t see them, their moans echoes out of the cavernous eyes and nostrils, as if the giant goddess of the City were masturbating so slowly, so internally, so deeply, that it was imperceptible to human eyes. Kitchen used the change to buy a sausage, then was reminded with the first bite why he never bought them. He split the meat and bread evenly between the pigeons and the invisible beasts that roiled the lake’s surface so close to land.
This is an informal, visionary voice we don’t hear enough of in CanLit, and it helps explain why the city is the City and not Toronto. Kitchen is living next door to Interzone.
And why does the giant goddess of the City masturbate? Because the City itself is impotent. Nothing ever happens in the City (just as nothing much happens in the novel). Creative energy either slides into apathy or is absorbed into the culture of advertising. Kitchen’s office mate Miter opts out of the work world to form the Inactivist movement, a group dedicated to doing nothing and caring less. Anti-globalization protesters are co-opted into a Pepsi commercial.
The Inactivist is like West and Burroughs too in being more of a nightmare sketch than a novel. Its hallucinatory prophecy of a future where advertising is the all-in-all spins along without the help (or hindrance) of developed structure, plot or character.
No matter. Eaton has more than enough sizzle in his language to make up for their absence. And his subject is the sizzle, not the steak.
Review first published online February 18, 2004.