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Tucson Weekly TV Or Not TV?

Matthew Sharpe Squeezes The Charmin In 'Stories from the Tube.'

By Jeff Yanc

JANUARY 11, 1999: 

Stories from the Tube, by Matthew Sharpe (Villard). Cloth, $22.

What dark desires drove the strangely silent Mikey to "hate everything," yet still ravenously devour any bowl of Life cereal placed within his reach? What inner demons forced Madge to order unsuspecting housewives to soak their weary fingers in a dish of Palmolive liquid dishsoap and pay high-end salon prices for the privilege? These are the questions that haunt a bleary-eyed boob-tube generation that has grown up with television commercial hucksters as both friends and substitute parents, and whose dreams, desires, and self images have been shaped and transformed by the cathode-rays. Stories from the Tube, a new short story collection by first-time novelist Matthew Sharpe, reflects the obsessive desires of one such pop-culture junkie to create new meaning and uncover emotional resonance from the steady diet of TV commercials ingested over a lifetime of viewing.

The seemingly benign 30-second commercial spots that constantly interrupt the smooth flow of television programming have quietly taken on the status of cultural myths since the 1950s, not only through their constant repetition, but also because of their ability to simultaneously reflect and create the desires of a consumerist society. Through their well-tooled catchiness and representation of modern society as a place of Stepford-like happiness achievable through consumerism, commercials have insinuated themselves into our everyday existence, becoming fodder for water cooler small talk and college drinking games. Scoff if you will, but even the "Kill Your TV" terrorists know who Mr. Whipple is and what he doesn't what you to do.

While the idea of creating readable literature out of the banality of TV commercials may seem either futile or pointless, Sharpe manages to construct a fictional world that insightfully reveals the extent to which our emotional lives have been packaged and commodified by the advertising machine. Each chapter in Stories from the Tube begins with a snippet of dialogue from a well-known commercial. Sharpe then uses that shiny, happy scenario as a springboard for darkly surreal examinations of the human turmoil behind the plastic smiles of the TV actors. Even though this high-concept structure seems to shout NEW! IMPROVED! GIMMICK!, the TV concept furnishes this seemingly disparate group of stories with a thematically unifying glue that many short story collections lack.

In "Cloud," Sharpe riffs on a White Cloud toilet paper commercial depicting a young female executive conversing on a business flight with a cartoon toilet paper salesman made out of fluffy clouds. He then twists the hokey setup into a metaphorical examination of a lonely woman made bitter by years of corporate drudgery and her bizarre love affair with a strangely amorphous man who seems to drift in and out of her life like a cloud. Her succubus-like lover drives her wild with sexual pleasure but leaves her emotionally barren, as she literally cannot make any kind of deeper connection with this strangely unreal phantom who leaves her as adrift as the Tidy Bowl man.

Throughout Stories from the Tube, Sharpe displays a keen desire to juxtapose human unhappiness with the relentlessly cheery life of sparkling linoleum floors and cleaner, fresher mouths espoused by commercials. In "How I Greet My Daughter," he quotes from a TV spot depicting a grown woman moving back home with her single mother, and their ensuing bonding session played out over a soothing cup of instant coffee. Sharpe's darker take on this setup is that of a misanthropic, agoraphobic, suicidal mother who despises her clingy, needy daughter for moving back home and shattering her self-inflicted exile from society. The queasily tense alliance that develops between the two women effectively subverts the adage that your family will always love you unconditionally. The reader is left with the distinct impression that no amount of Folger's crystals can heal the wounds inflicted by spiteful loved ones.

However, all is not gloom and doom, as Sharpe's stories often veer into the morbidly funny. In "Doctor Mom," a mother burdened with the role of family doctor by a cough syrup commercial takes fiendish delight in escaping the hell of domestic slavery by performing increasingly radical and unnecessary surgeries on her son in the family operation room, transforming him into a shuffling, drooling zombie while cursing her husband for his blatant inattentiveness.

In the novel's closing story, "A Bird Accident," an advertising executive driving a huge Cadillac accidentally, then repeatedly, runs over jazz trumpeter Charlie Parker, who continues to play his horn as he is ground into the pavement. This ignites in the executive the idea to use the incident to sell Cadillacs in a new ad campaign. When the campaign proves a stellar success, TV executives across the world begin mowing down famous jazz musicians to inspire new ad campaigns melding death, jazz music, and shiny cars. In the penultimate story of his collection, Sharpe savagely lampoons the TV commercial world's increasingly ghoulish attempts to hawk new products using dead celebrities as beacons of comforting familiarity. (Anyone remember the spooky, digitally enhanced image of deceased hoofer Fred Astaire waltzing with a Dirt-Devil vacuum cleaner?) The story, while darkened for comic effect, indicates that not a lot of exaggeration is required to skewer an industry that long ago trampled down the gates of good taste en route to selling the American Dream.

Unfortunately, this is the major glitch with Stories from the Tube--namely, that the real world of TV commercials is often so ludicrous and self-aware that satire seems redundant. Sharpe's stories occasionally fail to add a clever twist beyond obvious jabs at an easy target. One of the major challenges for writers in this saturated market of postmodern irony is to be more insightful and observant than both the reader and the object of ridicule itself. Hyper-aware ad executives who ironically create "bad" and "phony" ad campaigns that play on viewer's cynically sophisticated knowledge of commercial conventions have made it difficult for social critics like Sharpe to deconstruct them. However, this pervasive cultural cannibalism doesn't render satirists like Sharpe irrelevant, it just forces them to drill deeper for fresh insight.

For the most part, Sharpe rises to the challenge, uncovering the often hidden ways in which TV commercialism both creates and distorts our idea of the "good life." Like all effective satirists, he seeks out the larger implications of the surface issues he examines. Rather than merely mock television commercials, Sharpe endeavors to reveal the often insidious intentions of late capitalism, which creates the false notion of personal happiness through consumption of mass-produced goods and services. Television, with its hypnotic use of image and sound, has raised the art of selling happiness to new heights, but it is not really the guilty party. Stories from the Tube, with its gallery of twisted and pathetic characters who have lost their souls in the bleak landscapes of a media-drenched society, indicates that television is merely one socially-constructed strain of a much larger human virus called unhappiness here on Planet Reebok.

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