Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Syrup (by Maxx Barry)

His second novel, Jennifer Government, has been flickering in and out of my consciousness over the past year or so, but it wasn't until Michele A'Court put it in her top five novels of 2004 that I thought to actually take a look at it. Since the library had none in, I had to make do with his earlier novel: I started reading it over my dinner, decided I should stop for the night at around 1 but within 30 minutes, decided bugger it, I want to finish.

It was that good. My initial reaction had been a "what the?" moment, as there's a whopping big disclaimer saying that "although I talk about Coke a lot, I know they'd never do anything I suggest in this book". Knowing what the book is about makes it sound less than interesting - I mean, there is a lot about marketing of Coca Cola and the dirty tactics of the marketing game. There is quite a lot of marketing-speak deployed, even with little marketing case studies - but, as the disclaimer had said, the book is a send up of marketing. So, he have the occasional section like this:

The first principle of marketing (okay, it’s not the first, but it doesn’t sound nearly as cool to say it’s the third) is this: perception is reality. You see, a long time ago, some academic came up with the idea that reality doesn’t actually exist. Or at least, if it does, no one can agree what it is. Because of perception.

Perception is the filter through which we view the world, and most of the time it’s a handy thing to have: it generalizes the world so we can deduce that a man who wears an Armani suit is rich, or that a man who wears an Armani suit and keeps saying, “Isn’t this some Armani suit,” is a rich asshole. But perception is a faulty mechanism. Perception is unreliable and easily distracted, subject to a thousand miscues and misinformation... like marketing. If anyone found a way to actually distinguish perception from reality, the entire marketing industry would crumble into the sea overnight.

Doesn't exactly sound promising. There's no way you'd think he'd turn it into one of the funniest books I've read for a while, although Barry's own description is that “Well, Syrup is a kind of comedy-romance-corporate-thriller." The book, however, hooked me in with the first words, although they are awfully precious:

1: Me, Me, Me

i have a dream

I want to be famous. Really famous.

I want to be so famous that movie stars hang out with me and talk about what a bummer their lives are. I want to beat up photographers who catch me in hotel lobbies with Winona Ryder. I want to be implicated in vicious rumors about Drew Barrymore’s sex parties...

So that really leaves just one option: to be very young, very cool and very, very rich. The great thing about this particular path to fame, Oprah and line-jumping at nightclubs is that it’s open to everyone. They say anyone can make it in this country, and it’s true: you can make it all the way to the top and a vacuous, drink-slurred lunch with Madonna. All you have to do is find something you’re good enough at to make a million dollars, and find it before you’re 25.

When I think about how simple it all is, I can’t understand why kids my age are so pessimistic.

Then he introduces the premise that the average adult adult has three million-dollar ideas every year and starts thinking about what his will be. First, he has to drop his name in favour of a top-of-mind one like Scat. The first million idea hits him almost immediately - and a theme is introduced - while Scat is a creative genius, he's bad on implementation. He has an idea for a new Cola, or really just the name for one - Fukk. Since perception is reality, it won't matter if it tastes just like another cola - perception is reality, right. But he can't sell his product by himself, which is where (a) Coca Cola comes in and (b) his poor implementation is his downfall. He's great on selling the idea to Coke, and thinks he's made when they agree to pay $3 mill for the trade mark. Until he realises he doesn't have a trade mark.

Two other characters are important - his ever silent flatmate, Sneaky Pete, who seems to have great success with the women despite his lack of conversation, and the person he introduces Scat to at Coke. She's beautiful, but there's something else that gets to Scat: her name is 6
See, you have to respect someone who really markets themselves well.

Some of us change our names to something crazy, zany and/or wacky... When you go to all that effort, and you see other people making a lot of effort for pretty pathetic results, you have to admire someone who really pulls it off.

So you see, when you strip it down, what I really felt for 6 was professional respect for a colleague.

Plus, okay, a deep desire to get naked with her.
Once he finds he has been screwed out of his trade mark, he has nothing to sell Coke, and you might think that's the end of things for Scat and Coke and Scat and 6. But the marketing game is a tough one, and it turns out she gets shafted and needs Scat's creativity to keep her place. The plot unfolds furiously from this point, in a (marketing) fight to the death between Scat/6 and Sneaky Pete, who has managed to secure himself as the golden boy within Coke. This first involves Scat in planning a marketing campaign for Coke without anyone within Coke knowing that's what he's doing, and I have to say, he comes up with a doozy! He's having dinner with 6 at this truly tragic restaurant, where the Coke is in a machine, and they're screwed - they have no ideas for the campaign. After a fight with the coke vending machine, he's got it:

Last year, 12 Americans lost their lives while attempting to steal from a Coke machine.
[Picure of a railway station at night, with a Coke machine fallen on its side. There's a guy's arm sticking out from underneath it.]
Wouldn't you die for a Coke?
Of course, they are yet again outwitted by Sneaky Pete, which takes us to the final showdown. Noticed how there are no Coke ads on TV these days? That's because endorsements and product placement are far more important. So, the logical next step is to have Coke make a movie as a marketing vehicle. Sneaky Pete has made one, with millions of dollars, several months, Brad Pitt, Winona Ryder and Gwyneth Paltrow but the marketing boss is worried that he'll lose his job, so brings in Scat and 6 to make another, better one - with about a week and $10,000 to do so! At every step, they find that Sneaky Pete is in their way, making it impossible.

Oh, and of course, there's a romance plot - Scat is hopelessly in love with 6 but is she simply using him? She is a lesbian, after all. Or is she? Perception is reality.

Under the high jinks, there are a couple of economic theories being played with and contrasted. Fairly obviously, there's the micro-micro theory that firms are not interested in profit maximisation, rather those who run the firms are seeking to maximise their own self interest. Sneaky Pete is a classic illustration - his continued sabotage of Scat and 6's work is not good for the company as a while, but it suits his purposes. But, so long as everyone competes fairly, then it is good for workers to compete against each other - because the firm is just another market, and competition produces the best outcomes for the market. Or does it - is co-operation better, because it produces important synergies - as in Scat's creative talent being married to 6's ability to get things done?

Given all this marketing and economic stuff, it is a major surprise that the book is both very funny and full of dramatic tension - particularly as Cat and 6 get closer to deadline with their movie and find more and more obstacles in their way.


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