From Small Odysseys: Selected Shorts Presents 35 New Stories
“I churn out stone-cold bummers,” says Omar El Akkad in interview about his most recent novel, What Strange Paradise, set during the Syrian refugee crisis. That book, which won the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize, followed El Akkad’s debut, the 2017 novel American War, a dystopian vision of a near-future America beset by the ravages of climate change and a second Civil War. These are not, as their subjects might suggest, laugh-riots, though each is provocative and probing in its analysis of some pressing problems facing the world in the early decades of the 21st century.
El Akkad worked for many years as a journalist for the Globe and Mail, covering subjects such as the U.S. war on terror, the war in Afghanistan, and other international issues. Born in Egypt and now resident in the U.S., El Akkad seems to have a preternatural ability to home in on the most significant aspects of geopolitical strife and distill them into comprehensible analyses. This is as true in his fiction as his journalism.
What may not be apparent from these excursions is that El Akkad got his start writing in the comedic mode. Or, as the author himself puts it in a note attached to his story “A Survey of Recent American Happenings Told Through Six Commercials for the Tennyson Clearjet Premium Touchless Bidet,” he maintains “very ignoble comedy-writing roots.” El Akkad is being typically understated here. Because “A Survey of American Happenings” is nothing if not flat-out, fall-down, pee-yer-pants hilarious.
And the weird thing is: it comprises a commentary on modern America every bit as biting as what can be found in the author’s novels or journalism. Then again, there is no reason this should seem strange, except perhaps in Canada, where the dominant attitude seems to be that if a work of fiction is funny it can’t possibly be serious in intent. (Though many aspects of the new generation’s approach to imaginative literature have expanded the field of CanLit in numerous exciting and innovative ways, the “no laughing” rule seems to maintain something of an iron grip on our national cultural psyche. There are exceptions, but not many of them.)
The subject of El Akkad’s story is capitalism and its apparently unbreakable hold on our postmodern psyches. Specifically, El Akkad views recent events – including vicious political partisanship, survivalist conspiracy thinking, and the Covid-19 global pandemic – through the lens of one of our most ubiquitous cultural conveyances: advertising.
The story’s title, which is a gleeful gag in itself, indicates the structure and content: El Akkad breaks his narrative into six discrete sections, each of which represents the text of an advertisement for the eponymous bathroom accessory. Sample slogan: “No matter where you stand, sit on a Tennyson.”
That particular tagline is appended to an advert bemoaning the current state of political division in the U.S. By aping the effusive, hyperbolic mode of an advertising copy writer, El Akkad injects a heavy dose of ironic satire into the story’s jaundiced view of political discourse: “In this time of healthy political give-and-take, Americans everywhere are doing what we’ve always done – respectfully and peacefully airing our concerns and grievances.”
Here we have the confluence of advertising and disinformation or, at the very least, propaganda. A national history based on the precedence of rugged individualism – a virulent strain of which has led over the past 200 years to the Civil War, Jim Crow, separate but equal, the Kent State shootings, Watergate, the war on terror, and President Trump, to name but a few of the most egregious consequences – gives this sentence its ironic bite; I defy anyone to read it in context without laughing ruefully.
Especially given the absurd follow-up: “But there’s one thing we shouldn’t have to air out. And thanks to Tennyson’s patented OctoNozzle wash-and-dry technology, now we don’t have to.”
The corporate nomenclature here is brilliant on its own, as is the Rabelaisian recourse to scatology – something also profound in the repeated mention of the bidet’s “laser-calibrated sphincter proximity sensor.” But what is most apparent is the juxtaposition of a truly significant and dangerous political situation with the bare-faced attempt to co-opt that division as a means of selling folks stuff.
It is this discrepancy that provides the engine for the story – which eschews a typical narrative structure in favour of something more innovative and sly – as well as providing fodder for much of the comedy. Indeed, El Akkad notes the origins of this piece arose out of his discomfort watching television during the early stages of Covid lockdowns:
I became fascinated with how quickly the ads on TV had been retooled to take advantage of our collective fear and anxiety. There was something surreal about being in the middle of a global pandemic and historically bad recession and yet watching this parade of commercials for billion-dollar companies full of phrases like “from our family to yours” and “in these uncertain times,” as though this was all just a minor inconvenience.
In juxtaposing a series of social ills with the consumerist impulse to sell and buy stuff, El Akkad not only provides a trenchant commentary on our most venal habits, but buries this bitter pill in a surface text that is as funny as anything one is likely to read. It’s the literalization of our desires as much as anything else, and the product the author marshals to represent them. In this brief and uproarious story, the depredations of late capitalism are literally shit.