Spotted earlier in the week, lying on the desk of a lead designer at a prestigious advertising design firm: An issue of equally prestigious I.D. (International Design) Magazine, with a cover blurb announcing it as the “3rd Annual Design and Business Issue”. On the cover are three sleek rectangular cellular phones in muted shades of slick plastic—one black, one white, and one in bright orange-red with its flip-down mouthpiece open to reveal a matte black keypad and a grey retro digital screen—all very elegant and chicly minimalist.
Scrawled on the cover of this magazine in black grease pencil are two lines in smudged caps: “AFTER THE IPHONE THESE ARE ANCIENT! A SHIFT IN THE FORCE!”
The date on this issue is June 2007.
Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping, into the future.
The overnight obsolescence of technology is hardly news, nor is the fast-fashion consciousness of designers and tech geeks. But this little scene illustrates some of the seemingly inconsequential but deeply-felt ways our current culture trades in concepts of the future. On the one hand is the lifestyle marketing inherent in the cover photo, promising the phone you will want to have tomorrow when you discover today that this is the model of success, the status symbol of a freshly minted desire.
On the other hand is the gleeful way in which that future is regarded as quaint by the competition of an even newer future and its own successful interjection into the top-of-mind. And while the phrase “The Force” may glibly allude to Star Wars, more literally it is the force of trying to stay ahead of the curve and keeping one foot in tomorrow that drives this business, and the culture at large.
In its way, sometimes sardonically and sometimes bluntly, these are the ideas encountered head-on in James P. Othmer’s The Futurist. And, of course, it’s all apropos, given Othmer’s own well-established status as creative director of advertising powerhouse Young & Rubicam. As The Futurist is Othmer’s debut novel—from which an excerpted short story of the same name earlier wound up as a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Fiction—it’s always tempting to look into a new voice’s past for clues, and here Othmer makes it easy by willingly baring so much of himself in the pathos of this book.
Focused on a man named Yates, a professional Futurist, a prognosticator who has lived fully in the excesses of the cutting-edge (and the cutting-edge of excess), Othmer blithely weaves into Yates the cynicism and profiteering of a professional experience in advertising, projecting himself in a larger and more ludicrous than life character. And through Yates, Othmer is able to reveal the paranoia and nagging doubt of being an agent in a culture that seems to be hurtling if not out of control, then dangerously fast.
We first meet Yates in the midst of a burgeoning existential crisis. At the same time that his actions have begun to seem completely hollow and mercenary to all including himself, he is dumped by a longtime companion. Suspended between abstract irrelevance and real-time consequences, Yates realizes he’s already given up on himself.
Making his living as a paid public speaker who always tailors his optimistic hot air to whichever audience is paying him that day, Yates knows that he’s become a shill, available to the highest bidder and consequently reliable enough to demand ludicrous sums. And in one moment of low-level depression and high-level alcohol consumption, he commits what is surely professional suicide in front of a who’s-who panel of his peers, admitting his fakery and calling all attempts to predict the future into question.
Of course, we quickly realize that we are meeting Yates at only the beginning of his crisis, at his personal tipping point, and he is quickly plunged into an even murkier and more morally ambiguous turn of events. Recruited by shadowy, quasi-governmental agents with an unspecified agenda, Yates suddenly finds himself thrust into the middle of culture as it is evolving, moment by moment. Sent out into the world with an unlimited credit line and vague instructions to “see why they hate us” (“us” being Americans, capitalists, corporations… even Yates is unsure), he soon discovers that he is as much prey and target as he is observer, becoming a man on the run from both himself and forces he can’t name.
In that way, The Futurist is an adventure story, a thriller without Bourne-like fight scenes and car chases. But where those kinds of stories rely on action to drive the plot, Othmer keeps us engaged by scaring us about ourselves, satirically and sometimes even painfully putting us in Yates’s shoes and seeing through his eyes the worst of a luxury economy in a global environment. We run with Yates away from the lives we lead, and we don’t know where we’d go to get away, either.
As a successful ad man, Othmer also brings a crisp, wry sense of commentary to his language. As they say, the man knows good copy, and he’s quick with a sharp phrase. Even while befuddled, Yates is pithy and astute, making pointed observations that smack of tag line truths. Upon release of the hardcover in 2006, Othmer was justly hailed for his ability to write snappy, instantly engaging lines. Many of the chapters of the book hold the light on Yates’s ludicrous past by starting with brief passages of satirical contrasts, such as:
He once fired a man on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. He once spent the night at a wellness conference holding a bingeing MacArthur Fellow’s puking head over a toilet. He once wrote the introduction to a book he never read, Beehive Management: How Life in the Honeycomb Translates to Winning in the Workplace. A recent lecture circuit saw him speak on successive days to a leading pesticide manufacturer and the Organic Farmers of America and receive standing ovations from both.
A mish-mash of such short passages even adorns the new soft cover edition, which is, naturally, chicly graphically designed. These glib moments recall the kinds of devices that writers like Chuck Palahniuk use to drive home some meaningful humor, and indeed like Palahniuk, Othmer often paints the world as brutal and surreal, but there’s real anxiety here, a sense that somehow things have gone wrong, and rather than completely give oneself up to nihilism, there is always the glimmer of a hope of putting things right and making a real difference.
If there’s something too cliché in The Futurist, an element that almost seems like a throwback in a relentlessly eyes-forward storyline, it’s that there has to be a woman involved. Though not written as a stereotypical romance, Yates is still forced to find redemption in large part through his seemingly random connection to Marjorie, a young and beautiful woman he encounters just before giving his self-destructive speech.
Granted, there are justifications and that thread of the story allows for a deeper view into Yates while Marjorie acts as a foil, but that Othmer chose to make her both young and beautiful, both mysteriously aloof and blindly accepting, strays toward the trite. And when the book closes with an unresolved Marjorie still mysterious and still contributing little of herself beyond mere presence, it’s a disappointment.
Never mind, though, really, because this isn’t a love story. The Futurist is satire on most fronts, with a little humanization thrown in, and if that satire extends to tropes about middle-aged men, then so be it. Far more important is the spotlight that The Futurist places on our own absurdity in pursuit of the better tomorrow. Othmer questions it all without being heavy-handed about the blame. The world in a post-millennial hangover has plenty of blame to go around, be it deceptive businessmen, manipulative politicians, self-obsessed millionaires, ideological terrorists, would-be saviors, or the billions who watch them fascinated on TV. The Futurist has the self-awareness to both satirically point out that we love to watch a good disaster, and to know that in reading the book we’re engaged in the same activity.
In many ways, The Futurist shares some themes and ideas with another recent, lesser-known book, The Savage Girl by Alex Shakar. Both are concerned with trend watchers and the fashion culture and their lack of moral center. Othmer writes with the background of an ad exec; Shakar writes about ad execs. Both warn about an obsession with the future blinding us to the present. Ironically, this may be the new trend in futurism: warning us to be afraid of the future, or at least afraid of the people who say they can see it coming.
Or perhaps it’s just the end of fin de siècle fervor. Where is my jet pack? Where is my robotic companion? Where is my cure for this disease? So asks the T-shirt today. All of the promises of progress seem faded, or outright lies, in light of war, disease, and an eroding environment. And maybe The Futurist will make you consider these things. Maybe it’s a shock to the system. Maybe it’s less spoof than we think.
Or maybe that’s just hype, and you’ll have to wait until tomorrow, when your need for the iPhone has been replaced by your need to read this book, to find out.