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A fractured corporate fairy tale

by Kathleen Brazie

July 2, 2013

Confessions from a Dark Wood
By Eric Raymond
Sator Press   

“If Faulkner had access to anti-depressants, the university President’s mansion would have graced the cover of Absalom! Absalom! The Musical.” With that sentence, on the second page, I fell irretrievably in love with Eric Raymond’s debut novel Confessions from a Dark Wood. Like most of the book, that single sentence works on a variety of levels, all of which become more inextricably connected as the reader travels further into Raymond’s dark woods, subtitled The Secret Lives of C-Suite Consultants in the Post-Idea Economy. Dark woods, indeed. Dark, but funny. Edgy, but vulnerable. The simmering rage running through the novel’s veins is tempered by and expressed with such flippant absurdity that it makes the appalling somehow more palatable, effectively exposing the Emperor’s New Clothes. Or rather, the Emperor’s New Global Brand Management Consulting and the consumerist culture from which it grows. Raymond and his narrator call out its lunacy in no uncertain terms.

Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s brilliant musical Into the Woods intertwines various fairy tales in a slightly different woods; the second act deals with the consequences of wishes and the ways their ripple effects tie us all together. Now imagine a similar dark woods in which the fairy tales turn corporate and consumerist. It’s as though the witch became a consultant with Hansel and Gretel so they can market time-shares in the oven as a vacation home to an overly image-conscious Cinderella.

Confessions from a Dark Woods is a fractured fairy tale, a fractal recreation of a supposedly global corporate cultural pattern. LaBar Partners Limited, the firm for which Raymond’s narrator works, embodies a culture full of sound and fury, often signifying nothing but the myth of itself in a “post-idea economy.” It is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, guffaw- and cringe-inducing, over-the-top but in a way that one suspects it might not have gone far enough. A true artist, Raymond doesn’t just tell; he shows. With a vengeance.

Skewering a skewed culture

Narrator Nick Bray is lost, wandering through his early thirties and temp employment in San Francisco, coping with his father’s recent death and the conflicting feelings arising from the love/hate relationship they had had. When fired from his temp job writing at Purv, a porn company specializing in the “unity of woman and machine,” he takes a job offered at a global brand management consulting firm. His world is soon run by memos, meetings, fake work, air travel, high dollar credit limits, preposterous spending, and a ubiquitous Blackberry that keeps him tethered to his boss, Pontius LaBar. A seriously disturbed individual obsessed with consumption, competition, and image, Pontius cares mainly about his orangutan best friend and besting a rival consulting firm than no one has ever seen.

Nick is caught between this world and the bohemian world of his friends. Meanwhile, his father’s ghost (a former Cervantes scholar) begins to make regular appearances in a downright Shakespearean manner, raising questions in very non-Shakespearean language and locations (airport toilets, Vegas casinos) about direction, free will, and lost causes. With ruthless hilarity, Raymond leads us on Nick’s journey—from the artistic underbelly of San Francisco to the corporate innards of brand management, from biting satire to explorations of the impact that longing and loss and family have on us.

Initially seduced by the money, Nick finds himself stuck in a world in which image is everything, words mean nothing, and all that matters is flash and billable hours. Actually creating anything isn’t necessary; in this arena, “the making of a promise was the same as fulfilling the promise.” I couldn’t help thinking of an episode of short-lived but brilliant corporate comedy Better Off Ted in which two executives, caught between deadlines and upper management dictates, create the idea of and proceed to successfully sell something called “Jabberwocky” even though no one knows what it does because it doesn’t exist. That scenario would be completely familiar to Labar Partners Limited.

LaBar Partners’ consulting projects range from the outlandish to the frightening (sometimes both simultaneously). A drug used in foreign state interrogation needs to be made to sound American even though banned in American interrogations. Someone has created “Done Did It!” as a “personal productivity system aimed at the country boy entrepreneur.” An ex-military group wants to market “Rendition Vacations” as a thinly-veiled excuse to indulge sadistic or masochistic tendencies. In the world of reality television, fame for being famous, and the increasingly frequent selling of public services to private corporations, the ridiculous begins to sound reasonable.

Language and meaning are among the first casualties of the brand management wars. To make the stupid or the insane marketable, language becomes plastic depending on the need of the moment. Randi, Nick’s co-worker, speaks in jargon that is almost as frightening as it is seemingly nonsensical. “Rendition and torture are truly semantic conditions,” she expounds. “There’s a transformative potential in shifting perspectives.” Try not to think how similar this might sound to the ways in which language is used to talk about other wars and global actions. If language is truth, then simply change language to create a reality that one can bill a client for creating. Nick’s co-workers create overly complicated presentations aimed at keeping clients from asking questions. The point of all the charts and jargon and graphics “was not to elegantly reveal the connections between concepts or separate information from noise, but to encase a feeble-brained generality in a rotation, flashing, bewildering interface, and reinforce it with a saturation bombing of jargon. Clarity, thy name is Cambodia.”

Marketing, Makers, and Meaning (Oh, My!)

In contrast, Nick’s friend Jake (a poet who works as a TSA screening agent), his love interest Sadie (covered with corporate logo tattoos and working on wearable bombs), and even the increasingly intrusive apparitions of his dead father all appear to Nick from a different world, one in which words and actions actually matter. In these dark woods, for better or for worse, poets, suicide bombers, smart-alecky literary ghosts, TSA agents, porn companies, prostitutes, and fast food workers seem more connected to tangible reality than those in corporate global consulting. They seem to have higher standards, more integrity, and better employee management skills. At the very least, they usually make more sense even if sometimes it may be in a warped kind of way.

However, Raymond is not foolish enough to simply create a naïve division between “evil” corporations and “innocent” individuals. Each is complicit in the other. All businesses are not warped nor all would-be artists true creators; businesses can be creative and individuals warped. Nor is the “post-idea economy” insanity the only idea at hand. Our dark woods also include the impact of our parents and siblings, as well as what grief and loss do to people. The issue goes deeper into the nature of creation and meaning. And making. Nick Bray has to decide what he wants to make of his life. His father’s ghost demands, “Now what are you doing to do with all that responsibility, son? Are you going to roll with it? It’s choosing you. You’ve got that cosmic advantage. Now it’s on you: What do you do with it?”

One pivotal night, in one of the most powerful moments of the book, Nick notices the difference between him and the “makers”:

Each introduction made me feel a little more transparent, as though the painters, writers, musicians, and poets could see and sum up the con that was my life, and politely let it go by not asking me what it was I did….They all (and this included Sadie) were somehow brighter and less anxious than the Monday morning crowd I shared rows with in airplanes….What I loved about all of these people who made me feel like such a fraud, was the way they suggested by their effort that maybe the musicians on the deck of the Titanic were not cheap metaphors for futility and an unwillingness to face the fact of the freezing water as it rose. They were makers, fully aware of their making in the certainly of death. Some were running from it, some were walking towards it, and these people, Jake’s people, were dancing on the way.

Raymond delicately explores how acts of making can define us. What meaning, if any, do we choose? Nick thinks his father taught literature as mankind’s search for meaning. His father’s ghost retorts: “I taught literature as a defense against the chaos of the universe. There’s a difference between a defense against oblivion and meaning, son.” We can be makers as the Titanic sinks, or we can create a myth of ourselves with nothing behind it. Nick’s confusion and disillusionment mounts as he sees the tension between impressions created and the missing reality behind them. There’s a pathos not just in grieving Sadie but also in poor twisted LaBar, who “as he bastardized and bent his identity into the forms that his paying masters preferred, how could he not help but lose some central self? Without stage, who was he?”

While Confessions contains some weighty topics and horrific moments, this is no off-putting sermon or clunky treatise. As he peels back his characters’ layers, Raymond offers us a beautiful, smart, and oddly uplifting read. With surgically sharp prose, Eric Raymond weaves identity issues with the human need to connect, the strange forms those connections can take, and a seething contempt for the delusional nature of corporate inanity. His laser-sharp descriptions, quick-paced action, and exquisitely drawn characters expose both the sadness and the wry humor of wasted corporate and human resources, both the agony and the joy of choosing even the smallest of actions.

His storytelling is particularly entertaining if you recognize the allusions. For example, the way in which LaBar tries to quote Malcolm Gladwell (author of What the Dog Saw) to support the creation of a dog fighting league. Or the Faulknerian way in which the end takes us back to the beginning and the story folds back on itself. Be sure to check out the “advance praise” in front and website and Twitter accounts listed in the back of book for additional meta-hilarity.

Product Placement

The story behind Confessions’ publication is also a tale about the intersection between business and the act of making – but in a very non-LaBar Partners Limited kind of way. In a nice twist on the relationship between literary form and theme, this particular true story offers proof that people are still creating and that business and creativity can support one another. Several years ago, a young actor landed a lead role in a successful five-season television show. With the windfall this success brought, he started—wait for it—a small independent press in Los Angeles. As if starting Sator Press weren’t impressive and praise-worthy enough, actor/publisher Ken Baumann is a writer himself; his first novel Solip was recently released by independent press Tyrant Books.

In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, Baumann says the goal of Sator Press is to provide a home for “the abundance of texts floating around from authors who [have] had trouble placing them in the larger ecosystem.” Each book becomes a work of art; he even designed the cover for Confessions. Both Baumann and Raymond were recently interviewed on the podcast “What Are You Reading?” Listening to these two artists, you realize their intelligence, humor, and love for the act of reading, writing, and creation in general.

Baumann and Randall both belong to the world of Nick Bray’s “makers.” Baumann has given Raymond a home in the way that Raymond has given Nick a voice. Confessions and its manner of publication stand as an act of defiance in the face of the corporate ecosystems they portray. Sometimes, thankfully, the makers keep making no matter what the Pontius LaBars of the world are doing. Sometimes, thankfully, what is being sold is actually worth buying.


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Tags: Kathleen Brazie, Confessions from a Dark Woods, novel, book review, Eric Raymond

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