The hero of Arjun Basu’s debut novel is a copywriter for a New York ad agency who, at the ripe old age of 35, is burning out. Who could blame him? For one thing, he’s trying to recapture the lightning in a bottle that launched his career, a campaign for an Irish beer he re-named Berlin, just because “it sounded cool and the bottle would be cool.” There’s also the broader toxicity that comes with working in marketing. Joe Fields works for the kind of permanently smirking agency that keeps a video of George Carlin’s famous bit about “stuff” running on a loop in the lobby. “That,” Joe says, “told everyone we were in on the joke.” Exposure to such high concentrations of irony, cool, and brute capitalism has become a hazard to his mental health.
This discontent is the catalyst for a series of dreams Joe has, which feature a mysterious man– who Joe thinks looks like Huggy Bear from Starsky & Hutch, even though he’s never seen that TV show before – riding a horse. One night, the man gives Joe instructions to sit on his front steps, at which point “he would come and things would get better.” Feeling desperate, Joe cashes in his vacation days and sets up shop in front of his apartment building until further notice. A neighbourhood kid asks him what he’s doing. Joe replies, “I’m waiting for the Man.”
It’s an unlikely catalyst for a novel, in large part because the Montreal-based Basu never clues us in as to how we’re supposed to react to Joe’s mission, which stretches into several days and then weeks. It’s clear that a man sitting on his front steps, mostly silent and minding his own business, would not actually garner international media fanfare, not to mention a series of adoring female tourists who flash their breasts at him. Yet both of these things happen to Joe. At the same time, Waiting for the Man isn’t a self-reflexive commentary on the improbability of such a scenario, either. That would be a hard needle to thread anyway, given the clear warnings about ironic distance with which Basu opens the novel.
It isn’t until Joe’s mission suddenly turns into a cross-country road trip, as the Man in his head cryptically tells him to venture west, that we realize just how unambitious this novel really is. Cut through the obvious signifiers of North American frivolousness (product placements, 24-hour video streams), the constant but distracting references to pop music (from the Velvet Underground-inspired title on down), and the intrigue of an experimental premise (reminiscent of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Bathroom, among others) and you’re left with a story that’s been told a million times over: the disaffected cosmopolitan who finds a truer and more authentic life in the country.
The chapters in Waiting for the Man alternate between Joe in the past, either on his front steps or behind the wheel of a complimentary Honda – wait for it – Odyssey, and Joe in the new life he’s carved out for himself afterwards, peeling potatoes in the kitchen of a luxury ranch/spa in northern Montana. But even as Joe’s quasi-fame starts to catch up with him in the Midwest, the novel can’t synthesize these two storylines into something fresh or compelling. Partly this is a failure on a character level. The Man is, of course, meant to be a cipher. But Joe himself remains similarly opaque and non-descript, as does the Japanese hitchhiker he picks up, the reporter who stakes his career on Joe’s story, and the undifferentiated women who pass through the story, each of whom is beautiful, and each of whom is inexplicably attracted to our milquetoast protagonist.
Mostly, though, Waiting for the Man falls short because it doesn’t pass the basic, instinctive BS detector that all media consumers have had to develop in recent years. Everyone who uses Facebook or Twitter knows the feeling of seeing someone link to a dubious news story. Since clicks equal patronage, you have to be judicious about which of these you choose to pursue, often times relying on your gut to decide what’s real and what’s overblown. In Basu’s case, however, there’s not a headline Upworthy-enough to convince me to click through for more about hapless Joe Fields. “An Average Man Sits Down In Front Of His Apartment Building. You Won’t Believe What Happens Next”?
No matter what the reporters that trail him halfway across the country may say, you can tell this isn’t a real story from a mile away.
Michael Hingston is books columnist for the Edmonton Journal and author of The Dilettantes.