We’ll be getting to the review in just a moment, but did everybody see the 2015 Gift Guide from The AV Club? It appears to disproportionately recommend merch from TopatoCo-affiliated creators, with a @GOPTeens t-shirt (also available in pink), Night Vale socks, and six separate artistic statements from Brandon Bird. I’m not saying that AV Club copy editor Gwen Ihnat is obsessed with Bird, but she single-handedly made his products nearly 12% of the entire guide.
Josh Fruhlinger is a friend to comics; he’s spent a sometimes-thankless eleven-plus years picking apart the mediocre and inexplicable denizens of the comics pages looking for the occasional gem of batshit insanity (Mary Worth has a stalker and a neighbor with a meth lab!) or banal inoffensiveness that somehow transcended all reason (creepy blinking eyes in For Better Or For Worse and unending depression in Funky Winkerbean). His blog features one of exactly two comment sections that I will voluntarily read, a testament to purpose with which he has imbued his commentariat. He is funny, able to detect unintended irony at twenty paces, and utterly devoted to things whose heydays were decades ago (Mark Trail, Judge Parker, the entire Walker-Browne humor-approximating amalgamation).
He is directly responsible for the Archie Joke Generating Laugh Unit 3000 and undoubtedly inspired Funky Cancercancer and My Mother Is F’in Insane. In short, he is a voice of wry amusement in the barren, largely humorless world of the increasingly inappropriately-named funny pages, and he has brought all of those skills to bear in his first novel, The Enthusiast; Fruhlinger kindly set me a pre-final copy for review, and now you get to hear about it with uncharacteristically few spoilers but a fair amount of meandering. It’s the kind of book that forces you to look at lots of different things from different perspectives, revisiting some and digging into others that are new, synthesizing something from disparate maybe-nothings.
Bear with me for a bit; I promise it will make more sense.
Since I finished The Enthusiast, I’ve found myself wanting to go back and watch Merchants of Cool¹, a nearly 15 year old episode of Frontline, about the business types trying to figure out youth culture so it can sell that culture back to those who are living it, and ideally to those who aren’t yet. Such cool hunting can manifest in profoundly clumsy attempts, like a PR firm that ’bout five-six years back paid models to go to trendy New York bars and loudly order particular brands of vodka² to try to create clandestine buzz. It turns out when a stunningly attractive blonde won’t talk about anything except a particular brand of vodka (in weirdly repetitive soundbites) that she isn’t actually drinking, people are more creeped out than likely to buy booze.
Another example: we’ve all seen the futile, flopsweat-covered attempts of corporations to will into being a viral ad campaign, or to make a social media component (often gamified) of their incredibly staid website into the next Facebook. Okay, you can’t practically hear the executives thinking, we’ve made it like what we think that last popular thing was, so it will automatically become self-perpetuating and beloved … now! They never quite cotton to the fact that Facebook (which is much better at being Facebook than any wannabe) was an organic/accidental success before it became an actual success (and then, later, a ruthlessly engineered success … turns out you can will brain-stickiness into being, but only if you’re reinforcing the position you already hold). This is world in which Fruhlinger decides to play, and it’s like PR by way of Calvinball.
The agency that Fruhlinger describes (Subconscious Agency by name) is more subtle than the clumsy attempts at culture exploitation in that it’s not looking for cool, it’s looking for what people already love in niches that can be indirectly commodified. The right twenty people can (with the right manipulation) preach to the right three hundred, who carry along the right ten thousand, all without trace. If Subconscious Agency actually existed, the nerd-hype movies out of SDCC would have groundswelled to become bona fide blockbuster hits instead of borderline flops (looking at you, Snakes On A Plane) or critically-lauded low-sellers (howdy, Scott Pilgrim vs The World).
Which isn’t to say that such undertakings don’t exist — by its nature, it would have to operate under the radar, never letting on that careful nurturing of naturally-occurring enthusiasm, directed to the right place at the right time, causes changes out of all reasonable expectation. For example, it would explain some portion of the loud, disproportionate success of Donald Trump’s political career.
Subconscious Agency feels like a character — it’s shown to have an evolving nature and a carefully developed eusocial structure; it’s even got an absolute boss ensconced in her office like a queen bee, directing her hive mind the way she wants it to go. We learn their mission and structure and methods gradually, pulling us in and building up our interest into an absolute belief that this is how the world really works. It’s the cheeriest depiction of secret masters of the world you’ll ever read — Illuminati by way of twentysomething urban professional borderline hipsters.
This layer-at-a-time building, this involvement of our own desires to learn more without it being obvious that we’re being led by the hand? That’s possibly Fruhlinger’s neatest trick, where the structure of the book mimics the central thesis: in our modern world, attention is just another resource to be mined and refined and expended in the marketplace, preferably without too much notice being drawn. Let others be the hunters and merchants of cool; Subconscious Agency domesticates and selectively breeds its subjects without them ever being aware of it.
For Kate, our heroine, the subjects she’s juggling are a pair of distinct nerderies — train and transit fans (particularly as relates to the Washington, DC metro system) and a soap opera comic strip that’s seen better days (clearly inspired by Apartment 3G, which closed up shop some 10 days ago, and which was a beloved favorite of Fruhlinger’s snarkblogging). Fruhlinger’s got an innate ear for what happens when people care about something too much and find like-minded people online — they immediately and collectively become a comments section³, with all that implies.
Wrangling the unwrangleable (shut up, it is too a word), directing the undirected id of the online is Kate’s mission, which eventually involves some light trespassing, Hollywood types, the soul-killing thought of another August on DC’s Blue Line with no goddamn air conditioning and that weird smell in the carpet, Euro EDM, an unmovable force that doesn’t care about money or fame, and the existential question of what happens when you wonder about your own enthusiasm for enthusiasm. Questions become plans become actions become reactions become more questions, threatening to spin either completely out of control or into a state of control so profound as to lose all joy … possibly both at the same time.
The Enthusiast is tailor-made for anybody that’s ever been convinced that somebody else loves a thing you love in the wrong way4, which is to say anybody that’s been online in the past couple of decades. It’s a look at shared-interest cultures and the attempts to co-opt them, written from a perspective that couldn’t have existed just a few years ago5; I think we’ll see similar tropes from other writers with increasing frequency in the future.
It’s funny, thought-provoking, somewhat paranoia-inducing, and when you think on it a little too much, resembles a what hybrid of Escher, Moebius, and Mandlebrot would look like if they took the form of words6. It’s a hell of a debut novel, and will nudge you, tug you, poke you, until you want to tell others about it. Don’t worry, though — you can still tell yourself that you liked it before it was cool.
Josh Fruhlinger’s The Enthusiast launches with a big party in LA in two weeks time. It will be available for your purchase just as soon as Make That Thing gets its hands on the print run and into the mail to the Kickstarter backers that funded its production.
Spam of the day:
On behalf of everyone at San Diego Concierge, we would like to wish you and your family a very safe and happy Thanksgiving! We are deeply grateful for the continued support of all of our client.
As God is my witness, I
thought turkeys could fly have no idea what this is about.
¹ Which you really should watch because you haven’t lived until you’ve watched a serious PBS correspondent try to tease meaning from a screaming call-and-response between Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J on the one hand, and a teeming crowd of juggalos on the other. Apparently, they like titty fucking.
² Vodka largely having no appeal beyond the bottle design and how much the person you’re trying to sleep with has bought into the marketing campaign.
³ Which can go one of two ways:
- Varying degrees of low-level hostility occasionally erupting into all-out flamewars and public meltdowns
- A culture can form, with an accepted set of unspoken rules and only the occasional crankypants showing up to try to crap in the punchbowl and not much succeeding at that provocation
4 AKA Someone is wrong on the internet.
5 It requires being of such a culture long enough to internalize it, but also having the skills to observe from the inside with the perspective of an outsider. Fruhlinger, with a degree in Classics, may be uniquely suited to this task.
6 Also if Escher, Moebius, and Mandlebrot were regularly called posers and instructed to eat a bag of dicks by COMICNOVELUVVER69.