Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, July 2, 2006
By James P. Othmer
Doubleday. 257 pp. $23.95
I have seen your future. Or at least a small part of your summer. You're reading a debut novel by James P. Othmer, and you're laughing, and then you're feeling deeply unsettled about the state of the world.
As predictions go, that's an easy one. (Still waiting for flying cars, meals in a pill, being greeted as liberators.) Othmer was an executive with Young & Rubicam, a mammoth marketing communications company that operates behind the scenes in 81 countries and describes itself as "a single, borderless, boundaryless agency." That sounds something like working for Doctor No, but the experience has clearly informed this funny, thoughtful satire of corporate life, mass media and political manipulation. If Othmer is spilling this many insider secrets, the Powers That Be must want him to -- or he's a dead man.
The hero of The Futurist is a fabulously successful consultant named Yates, "a bona fide A-list player in the culture of expectation," who flies (first class) around the world to deliver very high-priced speeches about the trends that will shape our lives. Skimming Cond? Nast Traveler, chatting with bellhops at expensive hotels and borrowing "the tabs of wisdom tied to Celestial Seasons tea bags," he foretells the future and "turns it into a highly proprietary, singularly respected worldly expertise that is utter and complete bullshit."
Many of the chapters open with telling highlights from his career: "He once spoke before the graduates of a Bible college in Virginia about the future of God and one week later delivered the keynote address to the Adult Video Distributors Conference in Vegas about the future of porn, and received standing ovations at both." The secret to Yates's success -- surprise -- isn't divining the future but divining what people want to hear about the future and then delivering it with sufficient bravado. Parts of this couldn't have been too hard to write; real-life visionaries such as Faith Popcorn, who makes a cameo appearance early in the novel, issue pre-satirized pronouncements like these all the time.
But we meet Yates at a turning point in his life. "Now he feels it coursing through him," Othmer writes, "a crisis of faith, a waning confidence in the very future he sells." Two horrible developments have inspired this crisis, one very public, one very private. First, a space station for wealthy tourists that he aggressively promoted has suffered a fatal malfunction, and the world watches as its celebrity guests slowly expire on the most gripping reality TV show ever. Second, his longtime girlfriend has left him for a high-school history teacher, a replacement perfectly calibrated to emphasize her rejection of everything about him.
In a pit of despair and self-pity, Yates decides to throw all his success away and deliver a completely honest speech at a conference called Futureworld in Johannesburg. He admits that he doesn't know anything about the present or the future. He notes that he and his colleagues are never held to any standard of accuracy. Finally, in an act of professional suicide, he repudiates his career and announces, "I am the founding father of the Coalition of the Clueless."
Of course that confession of ignorance only propels him higher. "You've become something of a legend," a friend tells him. "The first to speak the heretofore unspoken universal truth that none of us knows anything. It's brilliant." Suddenly, Yates, "the Codifier of Cool" (Wired magazine), is more in demand than ever. Even as he tries to retire, two goons named Johnson and Johnson make him an offer he can't refuse: travel around the world, all expenses paid, and describe what the citizens of the world think of America. Enormous sums of money begin appearing in his bank account. When he still resists, they rough him up and then frame him for an act of terrorism in Italy. Whoever the Johnsons are -- corporate thugs? government spies? -- they clearly can't be outfoxed.
The first 25 pages of The Futurist appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review and went on to receive a National Magazine Award nomination in 2005. Fleshing out that story into a novel, Othmer has mingled the conceits of the corporate-spy thriller with those of domestic fiction, over-the-top lampoon with moving passages of suburban angst. The book suffers a bit from the debut novelist's panicked sense that this may be his only chance: Everything's got to be crammed in. What follows is an erratic but mostly entertaining story of Yates's travels to some of the remotest spots in the world. He consults a dot-com billionaire in Greenland, he speaks at a corporate-sponsored orgy in Fiji, and, in a terrifying finale, he makes propaganda commercials in "liberated" Iraq. That the Futurist should face death while shilling our war in the cradle of civilization is just one of the many irresistible ironies here.
The British (namely Dickens) may have beaten us to business satire, but Americans quickly cornered the market, and we've been deeply invested, whether we prefer it or not, since Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" first disrupted Wall Street back in 1853. Already this year, we've seen Max Barry's Company, Colson Whitehead's Apex Hides the Hurt and Douglas Coupland's JPod . But Othmer brings a sense of compassion to his anti-hero that gives his book more heart. Yates is wildly selfish, yes, but he's also deeply ashamed of it, suffering from that form of cynicism that is really smothered idealism. Despite all the sins in his past, he's retained the capacity for moral outrage -- even toward himself. That and a wicked sense of humor make him a particularly prescient character as the world spins toward its much anticipated future. ?
Ron Charles is a senior editor at Book World.