Subliminal Sentences

July 10, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished a while ago: The Empire of Ice Cream, by Jeffrey Ford.

Jeffrey Ford is another of those “new fabulists” or whatever you want to call them: he writes good, weird stuff.  He’s more of a straightforward fantasy writer than someone like Kelly Link, but he’s also doing really interesting things both within and between genres.  This is a solid story collection, a thoroughly enjoyable read.  My favorite stories were the title story (a great story about synesthesia which made me wonder why I have never read any other stories about synesthesia), “Botch Town” (actually a novella, and a great one, something like a blend of Stephen King’s “The Body” and Bradbury’s Green Town stories, but creepier), and “The Green Word” (which I happened to read right before seeing Hellboy II; the awesome Elemental in that movie is very reminiscent of this story).

But the story that’s going to stick with me the most is probably “The Weight of Words,” which is an utterly ingenious satire on advertising.  A savant named Albert Secmatte has cracked the pseudo-mathematical code by which language functions, enabling him to manipulate words in such a way that hidden messages can be smuggled in plain sight into any kind of missive.  Inevitably, a powerful businessman places his faith in Secmatte, who begins to write feel-good flyers encouraging people to enjoy life, be kind to others, etc., hiding advertising messages therein.  These messages prove utterly irresistible; even the narrator, who assists Secmatte in his endeavor, finds himself smoking the brand of cigarettes Secmatte is writing copy for. All of this is set in motion by another, more personal, kind of advertising: the narrator’s desire to win back his wife, who’s left him for another man.  He takes as his payment for assisting Secmatte a letter which contains the wordsmith’s wooing magic.

The advertisements here are effective, we are led to believe, because of Secmatte’s powerful word-equations.  But they’re also effective because they are unavoidable, unobtrusive, and associated with powerful messages: subliminal advertising doesn’t work, but this story’s found a way to imagine that it does.  And of course, advertising is always trying to be subliminal: always trying to make us forget it’s advertising, and always trying to be noticed without making us think too much about the negative aspects of what it’s selling.

I find this story so interesting because the nightmarish scenario it posits is not a nightmare at all: it’s more or less the current state of affairs in the real world.  We all think we’re immune to advertising; we all think there’s too much of it; we all think ads are crass, exploitative, manipulating fears and lusts and unhealthy urges.  (Okay, maybe not all of us; but most, at least.)  And yet it continues to work, continues to function, continues to do exactly what it wants to even when it’s in our plain sight.  It wraps itself in pretty pictures and pleasing phrases and somehow it works.

You should read the story yourself, but I think the key to the satire — the critique — imbedded in the story is the letters to the narrator’s wife.  Advertising is always trying to be about love, and yet it never understands it.

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