A First Novel Exposes the Hollow Core of the Global Big Ideas Industry | Modern Society of USA

A First Novel Exposes the Hollow Core of the Global Big Ideas Industry

A First Novel Exposes the Hollow Core of the Global Big Ideas Industry

By Peter Mendelsund

The renowned graphic designer Peter Mendelsund’s first novel manages to be breezy and profound in equal measure. That balance is — as the programmers say — a feature and not a bug, and it turns this homage to Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” into a clever metafictional sendup of artists’ retreats and tech-industry think tanks.

In a Middle Eastern desert, a local oligarch “or sheikh or some such” has funded the creation of a settlement known as the Freehold, an oasis of “ruins, malls, mines, camel rides, men and their retainers — in thobes, dishdashas, their heads banded by black agals — hunting with peregrines, Range Rovers out in the sands. (You get the picture.)” It’s also home to an international establishment known as the Institute, which offers fellowships to thought leaders in various disciplines. Among the current residents are the Brand Analyst, the Poet and a performance artist known as the Woman-Whose-Face-and-Hands-Are-Covered-in-Yarn.


Percy Frobisher has just arrived, intent on dedicating himself to a project of his own, the nature of which is left unspecified for most of “Same Same.” The indelible ink stain he gets on the front of his required uniform causes a great deal of embarrassment and he makes slow progress on his project, which he notates as a series of absurd “fundaments” like “The project shall have a narrative component. Narrative is the key ingredient in all my work, as well as in all work like mine. Perhaps narrative is the key ingredient in all human endeavor. Idk.” His procrastination techniques include taking drugs in an abandoned hotel, ogling another fellow known as the Mysterious Woman and sneaking out of the Institute to visit the enigmatic Same Same shop.

The novel’s title derives from the shopkeeper’s ability to replicate and even improve any item Frobisher brings in. Our fellow gets his uniform cleaned and other items repaired (or possibly replaced) and can’t figure out how. Perhaps the shopkeeper “could have amassed a huge amount of junk back there, storage bins from which he plucks (I want to say: one of everything? Four of everything? Wtf). Or there’s a really high-end 3-D printer. A Xerox; a milling machine; laser lathe, sewing machine; a staff of … how many?” Questions about creation and reproduction — mechanical, digital and otherwise — form a recurring theme.

Frobisher’s troubles are compounded by a run-in with the Institute’s menacing director, whose tech-jargon Newspeak monologue about the fellows’ responsibilities serves as a master class on subtext accomplished in a CAPS HEAVY rant that uses a lot of fancy words to say absolutely nothing. “Of course it will — no one, no fellow — while en-laddered here at the Institute — will be allowed to shirk hard work. But, more important, it will require your complete buy-in. FULL bandwidth. Every aspect of the process running in concert with the seamless integration of your talent/application stack within the Institute’s own, every layer contributing.” It’s one of the most perfectly tuned passages of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. The deteriorating environmental conditions of the Institute and an approaching desert storm ratchet up the tension even further.

In inviting a comparison to Mann’s masterpiece, Mendelsund has set a difficult task for himself. Percy Frobisher is no Hans Castorp; nor, it must be said, is he meant to be. “Same Same” reaches literary heights of its own, even if it occasionally punches down at some easy targets. In using nonsensical jargon to expose the hollow core of the global Big Ideas industry, Mendelsund has produced — or perhaps reproduced — something entirely satisfying. “Same Same” is a substantial book about emptiness. It reminds us that there’s no here here unless we create it ourselves.

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