Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Writing from “the ruins of New Jersey,” Clifford Meth muses that “[a]n author, at least this one, takes the world in through the glass darkly of his own bruised experiences, chews a bit, swallows, then gives you a cud-like product meant to entertain and sometimes enlighten. But it’s rarely fiction. It is, rather, regurgitated reality.” In Billboards, Meth’s latest collection of stories published by IDW Publishing, the author vomits forth (in a good way) a dystopian vision of America in the twenty-first century. Although it’s not a pretty picture, it’s an honest one—the “cud-like product” of Meth’s mental mastication meant to feed our minds as we orient ourselves among the ruins. In the title story (accompanied by brilliant illustrations by artist Dave Gutierrez, above and below), Meth resurrects a story from 1996 that seems even truer today. Over a decade ago, the idea of advertising extending to the human body seemed ridiculous. Today, product placement knows no bounds, making Meth’s story both prescient and protective—a warning of how corporate control of our souls can make us lose our way and a map showing us how to find the way back.
“You’re incompatible,” the bureaucrat tells a couple hoping to marry. “Sorry… You’re owned by different conglomerates.” Meth paints a world in which individuals sign pacts with the corporate devils without thinking of the consequences—the classic Mephistophelean scam. In a world of pure surfaces and no depth, in which a blink of beautiful eyes makes you crave a Big Mac (above), the battle against corporate slavery is a battle to reclaim the self. Meth doses his fiction with social commentary that slips under our conscious radar rather than slams us over the head. Gutierrez’s illustrations match this mixture of fiction and fact wonderfully, accentuating the eroticism of the cult of the body as ultimate advertising platform while simultaneously capturing the soullessness of the eyes beneath the McDonald’s lids.
Meth continues to harp on the villainy of corporate America in two stories, “Wagging the CEO” and “Blowing Smoke,” that both star boss man Jonah Zwillman, a man “as unaware of his surroundings as a frog is of the bacteria in its pond.” With his right-hand man, Rob Ligner, “a prematurely gray-haired man who had never suffered an authentically creative thought,” Zwillman bungles his way through the business world as the embodiment of all that is wrong in the age of the government bailout. Meth balances such big-picture dystopia with individual dysfunction in stories such as “Hank Is Having a Mid-life Crisis (and Everyone’s Invited).” Taking a call from a lonely fan who calls him “the smartest person I know,” Hank (a possible Meth doppelganger?) tolerates the woman solely on the promise of an empty sexual encounter. Lonely Hank’s disconnection from his own dreams stands in for the disappointment of the average American post-Bush and, ultimately, the impotence of the American Dream turned nightmare.
Meth makes life in America with all its emptiness and flaws the butt of his satire, but he always layers in his characteristic wit to lighten the load. Billboards holds up a mirror to a nation awaking from a mindless binge of terror, torture, and tasteless corporate excess to a hangover literally the size of the national debt. For all those still coming down from the high of the Obama promise to the Obama reality, Billboards will ease your descent. Clifford Meth deals in the gritty details and never indulges in hopeful fantasy, but his fiction, especially this collection focusing on what’s wrong today, always provides the bracing slap across the face that steels us for tomorrow.
[Many thanks to IDW Publishing for providing me with a review copy of Billboards and for the images above.]