The Market-Ready Free Verse Novel

April 22, 2008 § 3 Comments

Just finished: Sharp Teeth.

Reading next: The Wet Collection, by Joni Tevis.

One of my favorite comedians, Bill Hicks, had this incredible bit in which he suggested that anyone working for an advertising or marketing firm should just go ahead and kill him- or herself, and then speculates on marketers’ reaction to his “going after the anti-marketing market.” Hicks was about a decade and a half ahead of his time and was funny as hell, with or without a mullet.

I bring this up because, much as I try to avoid delving into authors’ bios (and yet I’ve done it twice since I started doing this, what a hypocrite!), I can’t help but notice that Toby Barlow works in advertising. More than that: “Toby Barlow is executive creative director at the advertising agency JWT…” It’s right on the back of the book. The man’s no drone; he’s a big shot. (JWT used to be known as J. Walter Thompson until they “relaunched their brand” a few years ago — a la “KFC,” I suppose — and, in my ongoing quest to Fully Disclose, I suppose I should say that my employer holds the archives of this agency. All views only my own etc. etc. You know the drill.)

Okay, so actual (very prominently displayed) copy from the JWT website: “At JWT we believe advertising needs to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in.”


Advertising does play a small but significant role in Sharp Teeth: there’s a campaign orchestrated by the rogue wolf Baron and his friends in the industry to stop the execution of strays and plaster L.A. with celebrity-endorsed ads to take in a stray dog. It’s a strategy to infiltrate homes with werewolves planted in the shelters, gradually taking over the city for the wolves, and it works for a while; then the reprieve is lifted, the campaign ends, the adopted remain adopted, waiting for a signal to strike that might never come. So Barlow doesn’t shy away from the dark side (or at least the darkly humorous side) of his day job, it would seem.

What we have here, then, is the work of a nighttime novelist. There’s plenty of precedent here; I mean, DeLillo and plenty of others wrote ad copy, too. Kudos to Toby Barlow for juggling work and more personal work. The book is remarkably devoid, in this day and age, of brand names; no complaints there.

It’s tempting to see a self-allegory in this tale of white-collar workers transforming into vicious dogs and wolves at will, but the book seems to resist that: one of the best things about this book is its playing with the werewolf trope without simply exploiting the wolf-man dichotomy. They’re doggish-wolfish-mannish beings, in this book, their desires and motives and appetites all jumbled up. It’s clever that there are white-collar wolves in law and advertising, but it doesn’t seem to be more than a slight joke, a touch of surrealism, and a Zevon homage.

Now, I’m an old fogey when it comes to advertising. (I don’t think advertising firms even like to call themselves advertising firms anymore; it’s all branding and promotion and such.) I like ads to be ads, the better to ignore them. I hate it when songs I love get plopped into commercials. Hearing about viral marketing campaigns and product placement (even — hell, especially — ironic product placement) and branding strategies is nails-on-a-chalkboard stuff for me. (I hate that I know the terms, actually, but what can you do?) So it bothers me that the book is in free verse which often seems just like prose. It seems like marketing, which is apparently something Gavin Grant, Elizabeth Hand, and others have also indicated.

The book’s a novella, really, if it’s on the page as prose: 150 pages, tops, probably less.

No one buys a novella. No one reviews a novella. No one sells a novella, much less a first novella.

Then there’s the climax. Don’t worry, I won’t give anything away; let’s just say that the presence of a Blackhawk helicopter and government snipers made it seem an awful lot like a glorified film treatment.

I’m bothered by this book, because I liked parts of it an awful lot. The parts where nothing important is happening are great: people falling in love, keeping secrets, going to work, feeding dogs, playing bridge, hanging out at the beach, telling tales. There are some lovely passages in here, and some really great action-packed prose that does flow as fluidly and naturally as poetry.

And yet it bothers me that the book has this gimmicky no-dust-jacket design (which does, I suppose, help the book stand out on a shelf, but it’s impossible to keep the glossy labels on the covers in decent shape), and that there are blurbs all over the front and back endpapers. I know, I know: you’ve got to sell books to keep publishing more books, I know that even the most lily-white work of art needs a patron. And yet it bothers me, like graffiti ad campaigns bother me, and Clash songs showing up in commercials bothers me.

(I promise to be less cranky with the next contemporary book I read.)

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