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Generica: A novel

by Will Ferguson
309 pages,
ISBN: 014029984X


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It's a Mad, Mad World
by Julie Chibbaro

Will Ferguson

Will Ferguson previously plunged his sharp teeth into Canadian and Japanese societies, penning biting satires that reveal these countries' foibles. Books like Why I Hate Canadians set the acid level for his caustic eye, which he now turns on America in the form of a novel, Generica. The results are wickedly brilliant.

The hero of Generica is Edwin de Valu "(a.k.a. Ed, a.k.a. Eddie, a.k.a. Edwynne in his poetry-reading college dorm days)", a dorky Gen-X editor of non-fiction at Panderic Books Incorporated, located in the sooty heart of Chicago. Edwin specializes in editing self-help books. His life is a mess. His true love is May Weatherhill (lovely-lipped associate editor-in-chief at Panderic); he is afraid of his wife, Jenni (Stepford wife automaton whom he calls "Hun," presumably after Attila, and not for honey); and, worst of all, as editor, he promised to deliver to his publisher, Mr. Mead (aging baby-boomer, balding, with ponytail), a standard self-help book that he does not have by an author who does not exist.

The action in Generica starts when Mr. Mead insists on seeing the promised self-help book immediately, before he leaves town again. In a frantic tizzy, Edwin remembers a particularly obnoxious slush-pile book called What I Learned on the Mountain by Tupak Soiree which he had thrown in the trash that very morning. He retrieves it and begins to wade through it, to get it into a presentable shape for Mr. Mead.

The book, to his astonishment, is a strange, intelligent, smarmy, philosophical, ditzy mixture of self-help and religion, with advice on weight-loss, smoking cessation, money matters, and so on¨as if it were all the self-help books on the market wrapped up in one (it's over 1,000 pages). The chapter on smoking cessation makes Edwin quit right away, and creeps him out at the same time. There is, he discovers, something very different about this particular self-help book: The advice is too right, and it actually works.

Once Tupak Soiree's book is published, it becomes an instant hit. Sales climb into the millions, and everyone, to Edwin's increasing horror, gets 'healed'. They all become happy (complete with glazed, blissful look). Soiree appears everywhere¨on Oprah and all the talk shows, and people everywhere bleat out meaningless platitudes, stop all vices, eat granola and work on alfalfa farms barefooted. This results in the rapid decline of alcohol and tobacco companies due to a complete absence of patrons (who no longer need such things), which leads to a global, economic disaster, as well as a personal tragedy (according to Edwin/Ferguson) for those who've forgotten how to have fun with these drugs.

It is not until Edwin's beloved May gets zapped that he is driven to save her (and overcome his wimpiness), to fight the evil Soiree, and get the world back to its normal, lively, sickly state. This he does in an unexpected way with a bottle of whiskey, a trip to the desert, and the involuntary participation of a ranting senior citizen.

Stylistically, Will Ferguson has created the perfect setting for his frequent cynical observations about people, often going over the top to drive the point home. When talking about Edwin's wife, who constantly seeks her husband's reassurance, he allows Edwin to comment, "Some people fished for compliments. Jenni sent out bottom-trawling Liberian fleets to scour the ocean floor." About his boss, Mr. Mead, Edwin remarks, "Sometimes genius needs a helping hand. On days like that, Leon Mead liked to whip up an inspirational cocktail of illicit chemicals¨uppers, downers, sidewinders . . ." Just when the reader thinks he will stop, Ferguson brings his caricatures to an even more absurd level.

Magnified, too, is his portrayal of American society. For example, the way Americans follow trends and celebrities with something like religious fervour: "When Tupak appeared on Oprah, entire cities came to a standstill. . . . Mr. Soiree was dressed in a simple white cotton robe, the type favoured by charlatans and gurus alike since time immemorial, and he beamed magnificence¨beamed it¨at the audience, at Oprah, at the millions of fans watching in their living rooms." His pokes at America are often accurate, if a bit overblown.

The energy of Ferguson's storytelling is reminiscent of Monty Python films, or Terry Gilliam's Brazil or Time Bandits, where one wild event stumbles into another. The protagonist is familiar, an office dork with a secret well of personality who, in his own awkward way, figures out how to save the situation. Ferguson seems to draw references from widely varying sources¨from Gulliver's Travels to Brave New World to The Wizard of Oz.

On the sensitivity front, however, Ferguson fares poorly; he tends to run over the more delicate issues he raises, such as drinking and smoking, or victimization, or fat, rendering them inert as pancakes. The line between extremes in Ferguson's hands is often ambiguous, such as between overdose and recreational drug use, alcoholism and after-dinner drinking, obesity and plumpness.

By driving his character Edwin too hard and fast to save the world, Ferguson avoids openly dealing with the hypocrisies and troubles filling our real world; for example, the way tobacco companies fund sports events, or get children addicted to nicotine, or how alcoholism destroys family life. He doesn't allow his character to find a natural solution to the problem he brings about. Instead, through the drunken frenzies of Edwin, May, and his Wizard of Oz (whom we ultimately meet), he seems to support such addictions by mourning their loss. This undermines the power of Ferguson's message, the suggestion that if we as a society had no problems, nothing to fight against, we would be floating on a dull, gooey surface, and would not be as deeply engaged with the world, and each other, as we are now.

Perhaps Ferguson could have focused his sharp mind on the question that he raises with his premise: How can we find some measure of happiness without drugs, without platitudes, and without all the hype? Generica closes in on the answer, and yet remains at a safe distance from it. ˛

Julie Chibbaro is a Montreal writer currently at work on a novel called White Indians. She has written for the Montreal Gazette, The Prague Post, and other Internet and print venues.

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