A couple of weeks back I finished reading A Void, which is Gilbert Adair’s translation of Georges Perec’s original French La Disparition. The defining feature of this book, the reason I picked it out of a pile of price-reduced literature in the bare aisles of a soon-to-be-departed local independent bookstore, was its gimmick – but for the name of its author, the novel does not contain a single E. It is the story of a chronic insomniac named Anton Vowl who goes missing, and of his assorted friends and confederates who come together to piece together his disappearance until a killer starts bumping them off one at a time. Where the constraint comes into play is that each character, shortly before his or her demise, realizes that there are no E’s in the story in which they are taking part; likewise this revelation is meant to dawn upon the reader slowly as well, the thought, I suppose, being that you would have been so swept up in the narrative that you would have failed to notice the absence of E in the prose. Where the puzzle collapses before it begins to take shape, however, is that the book’s cover illustration is a huge lower-case E inside the familiar red prohibition sign (as imitated above) and the blurb beneath it proudly proclaims that “There is not a single E in this novel!” As murderous to the book’s outcome as that advertisement choice may have been, it was what convinced me to select it over its competitors, fascinated as I was with the notion of seeing how Perec (and Adair) pulled it off. But essentially, the very reason I bought the book wound up spoiling the experience of reading it.
The ubiquity of the sale in our lives means that we live in a perpetual meta-state regarding the entertainment we consume, where the experience of the advertising and promotion becomes an inextricable component of the product itself, be it book, song or movie. See the trailer, read the review (and leave angry comments on the review’s website), listen to the soundtrack, buy the tie-in toys, T-shirts and sodas, then, don’t forget to get a copy of the Blu-ray with the free digital download. The story becomes more than just words on a page or light on a screen, it is jacked up with marketing steroids in order to escalate it to the level of cultural happening. Yet when the tease is so overbearing, the actual story can’t possibly live up to the level of anticipation that has been set. For advertisers, that doesn’t matter; once they’ve closed the sale, their job is finished, even if they’ve spoiled the ending. In fact, we’re hard-wired to be disappointed by our purchase anyway – there was a scientific study released a while back that proved the emotional experience of wanting something is more intense, and more pleasurable, than actually having it. Being fully briefed before we open the first page just guarantees this. Yet this situation seems increasingly impossible to avoid (pun intended).
In school, you’d be handed a book you most likely had not read before (or possibly even heard of) and instructed to go through it and identify themes, write an essay about it, what have you. When you’re choosing a book for yourself, what is it that makes you want to pick it up? The genre, the blurb, the online reviews, a recommendation from a peer, a personal friendship with the author, or the hottie in the cover illustration beckoning you with a sly wink? Whatever pushes you over the line from “browse” to “buy,” you already have some tangential awareness of what the story’s going to be about. The very section of the bookstore in which you find this unread treasure is a key to how events will play out, with familiar tropes rearranged like so many malleable chess pieces to provide you with a modicum of distraction. I sometimes find myself wondering if the school approach isn’t a purer way to experience stories – without prejudice, as it were. If having no expectations is the best way to be wowed. The trouble is, few of us are in the position where books are likely to be assigned to our reading list, and we’d probably be loath to embrace such instruction anyway. We don’t want our passions to feel like homework.
One of the problems with modern life is that we seem dedicated to paving over the rough terrain ahead to eliminate all unknowns and any semblance of risk; in effect, to remove all sense of adventure, and to ensure a future that may be prosperous but will by no means be surprising, or even terribly memorable. Doesn’t matter what you set out to do, there’s probably at least a hundred people with an advice blog on how to do it so you get the results you want with little room left to fumble about the edges and discover the best method for yourself. You can’t escape them. Everything you want to do with your life has already been dissected, analyzed and summarized by somebody else. By the very virtue of expressing interest in it, you will have it spoiled. To bring this back after a fair bit of digression to A Void, while I would not presume to suggest it’s a transformative work of literature, it might at least have been an enjoyable entertainment had the secret not been given away on the damn cover. I still struggle though with the notion that I most likely would not have purchased it otherwise. (And I am aware of the irony that if you have not read A Void, you have just now also had its secret spoiled by your perusal of this entry, and for that I’m sorry.)
I’m not sure what the answer is to this conundrum, whether it’s better advertising methods or a more cautious consumer, unplugged from the torrents of background noise. I just know that you shouldn’t have to work so hard not to have surprises ruined for you. They’re what make the puzzle of life so compelling to solve. And nobody likes happening upon a crossword with all the boxes already filled in.