Monday, 8 June 2015

Mad Man

Given that ad agencies are crammed full of writers, it's a surprise that there aren't more novels set in the world of advertising. Although a few copywriters make the transition into full-blown author-hood - Salman Rushdie and Fay Weldon spring immediately to mind -  they tend to avoid the agency and their former workplace as subject matter, perhaps wanting to distance themselves from it.

Films and TV series seem a more fruitful fictional home for ad people, especially since Mad Men has graced our screens in all its Martini-era glory. And every now and then, a film will pop up featuring an ad man whose conscience gets the better of him, such as Crazy People or What Women Want.

Looking at the handful of novels there are, the most obvious route seems to be to play it for laughs, as in the books by Matt Beaumont. There is dark humour and satire, too in Frederic Beigbeder's 99 Francs, of which I have an English translation that suffers a little, apparently, from the transplantation out of its native tongue. I even admit to having made a start to an ad agency saga myself, with a friend, in the early 90s. It was third-rate chick lit and thankfully, we soon got bored with the project.

I was therefore pleased to come across The Zoo, by ad man Jamie Mollart. He has taken the bold step of writing serious fiction about a completely obnoxious advertising director on a self-destructive downward spiral. I should say as a warning that, despite its title, there's nothing remotely fluffy here. It's a gripping, gritty, nightmarish tale with no holds barred. And it pays off - best if I leave you with my review from amazon and recommend that you read The Zoo yourself:

Almost everyone I know who has worked in advertising or marketing has had attacks of conscience, from the small twinges of "isn't this all a bit trivial" to the full blown attacks of "why I am wasting my life and talents as the mouthpiece for dubious companies." For James Marlowe in "The Zoo", the full blown attack surfaces as part of a heavy cocktail of drink, drugs and family problems as the once-successful ad man's life smashes and fragments into psychosis. "The Zoo" intersperses chapters chronicling this descent into madness with chapters where James is in a psychiatric hospital, his thoughts dominated by "The Zoo" of the title - an enigmatic collection of toy figures. Are these malevolent, or do they represent meaning and possibly redemption?

This story is original and compelling, and like the substances James abuses, totally addictive. The descriptions of the psychotic episodes are nightmarish and visceral - there are touches of William Burroughs here, as well as Irvine Welsh and Bret Easton Ellis. It's an ambitious work, with plenty of social commentary as well as a fascinating glimpse into the subject of blood minerals, via the fictitious African country, Nghosa.

The ad agency lifestyle portrayed is recognisable to anyone who has worked in the business, but I felt it reflected the way things were in the last decades of the last century, rather than how things are today. Advertising agencies in the 21st century are struggling to survive, and have had their wings of excess cut by the bean-counters.

However, I'm pleased that the author created the obnoxious anti-hero James Marlowe. It makes a change to read a story about someone who has next to no redeeming features, but in whom you can recognise (unfortunately) some of your own worst characteristics. "The Zoo" has something in common in this respect with Frederic Beigbeder's "9.99" - it's a mirror to the dark side of ourselves.

Not easy subject matter, but very easily read, "The Zoo" gets a thumbs-up from me.

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