Review: The Mere Future, by Sarah Schulman

>>Published: September 2009

>>Finally got around to it: October 2011

Spending money was now what we did at home. When no one was looking. This stuff on the street was fluff. A diversion.

We were marketed to at work, where we felt employed.

But once we stepped outside of the office, there was none of it. Not a trace.

Sophinisba had realized that the most traumatic and marking things in a person’s life happen in secret, in private. They often involve cruelty from someone you love or at least know. All of us are used to this. We don’t like it, but it’s now familiar to suffer indignities, to be dehumanized and lied to at home. For many of us, life has been that way since childhood. Then we grow up, love someone, trust them, and they hurt us. Again, AT HOME. We know nothing else.

Given this very common but unacknowledged truth, the violation of marketing is just another slap in a very full face. Assimilable.

But public, that’s another story. That is a place of display, and trust.

Now, we go home to cry. And to shop.

***

Sarah Schulman is one hell of an acrobat.

Over a trim 183 pages, Schulman manages to create and destroy a utopia (or the mythical image thereof) by offering society the very thing we want most of all—affordable housing. Then, without a word of warning, she slips the needle of marketing into our collective vein and whispers sweetly to us, telling us it will all be okay, all Albert Brooks-in-Drive style. All this while balancing family dysfunction, acceptance of gays and lesbians, the ramifications of eliminating the very concept of the poverty line, and the struggle for artists to define their worth in a social structure more akin to the post-modern communist Star Trek utopia, where everyone contributes to the grand schematic (or The Media Hub) in their own way.

The Mere Future is also dripping with lyricism, personality, and intricately—occasionally ridiculously—drawn individuals.

The novella begins with the introduction of a new Manhattan regime. Under newly elected Mayor Sophinisba Breckinridge, the city experiences The Big Change: the cost of living drops dramatically, homelessness is all but eliminated, and the art of marketing becomes the be all and end all profession. Personality matters, possibly more than ever, and notoriety is currency.

Schulman’s writing is sharp—intelligent without overwhelming her characters or the reader with the intellectual/sarcastic shorthand she employs progressively throughout the book. Instead of directing the characters to whatever forced endpoints her argument might have, she allows them to grow naturally and absurdly, to whatever endings suit their development under the veil of Mayor Sophinisba’s utopian dystopia.

It feels oddly coincidental that I would come to this title so soon after reading Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. Though their narratives and structures are decidedly different, both writers are dystopian satirists, unafraid to let their subjective social criticisms rise to the forefront of their storytelling. But where Gartner’s collection of short fiction wanted to stand at the front of the class, yelling “Hey, look at me and how clever I am!” Schulman’s novella is content to let its diction and style evolve through the content and the characters—especially that of Harrison Bond, the dark, dissatisfied celebrity writer whose status, trembling as it is under the weight of past success, remains his greatest commodity.

The Mere Future carves a Spirograph design from the husk of a falsely placated Manhattan, winding through the cult of personality, all-purpose media marketing, and the impact sweeping change to an established social structure would have on a city’s inhabitants. Through the character of Harrison Bond, Schulman wraps the tightest coil of commentary around a figure so grossly representative of one of the major problems of the old world—celebrity status and its inherent power—that, in the shadow of the new, his extremes are amplified to take advantage of the full-time media circus that envelops and employs all. The greater the pariah, the greater the dividends.

The Mere Future is a wonderful companion piece to the pantheon of sort-of-but-not-quite-sci-fi dystopian literature. Schulman finds a near-perfect balance of commentary, sincerity, and wit with which to fashion her argument, without forcing resolution from content alone.

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