Former Young & Rubicam advertising executive James P. Othmer has written a debut novel so slick and seductive, you’ll find yourself reaching for your wallet without even knowing what’s for sale. The product is the book’s protagonist: the world-famous “futurist” Yates, a trend-spotter, televisionary, buzz-whisperer and bullshit artist. The guy is like an amphetamine-dosed amalgamation of Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas Friedman and real-life futurist Faith Popcorn. He’s five seconds ahead of everyone else, and he rides the twisted weirdness of the world as if it’s the perfect wave.
As the novel kicks off, Yates’ callow existence is in crisis. His girlfriend, calling him a “delusional, sociopathic prognosticator,” has dumped him, and Yates is feeling disillusioned and, worse, nostalgic. He proceeds to commit career suicide at the Futureworld conference in Johannesburg by proclaiming himself the “founding father of the Coalition of the Clueless,” and then goes on a book-length bender. Even though he’s coming apart at the seams, two shadowy agents hire him to jaunt around the world and take its geopolitical pulse. Along the way he cavorts with billionaires, witnesses a bombing in Milan, falls in love with a virgin hooker, goes surfing at a private island, and finally lands in the Iraqesque country of Bas’ar, where he’s put to work improving the public perception of “Brand America.”
Stylistically speaking, The Futurist is a tour de force. Othmer’s cultural riffing is a true joy, and his caustic humor is a devilish delight. Like The Corrections, this novel bristles with heady contemporary concepts, yet you can polish it off on an overnight flight.
Morally, however, the book is a much slipperier animal. Othmer perfectly captures our dystopian present: a world of murder veiled behind misinformation, “barefoot children in the shadow of Colonel Sanders,” and a debauched cognoscenti spinning global atrocity into personal gain. When Yates witnesses 43 people stampeded to death at a soccer riot, his handlers calmly ask him what can be done “to ensure this will not diminish our chances of hosting the World Cup here in two years.” Not only do these people take advantage of suffering, they actually get off on it. Assigned a former prison cell as a hotel room, Yates contemplates “masturbating in a room in which men once waited to be stoned to death.” And, in Milan, he has sex with a girl whose idea of pillow talk is Yates’ description of a boy wounded by a suicide bomber. “What color were his eyes?” she asks as they fuck. “Mmm-hmmm. Yes. Yeah. That’s it. Tell me again.”
Presumably, the book is a satire of postmodernity, but a satire ceases to be satire when it starts relishing the very thing it purports to attack. Like South Park or Thank You For Smoking, Othmer’s novel uses the most revolting aspects of our culture for comedic material, constantly teetering between scathing critique and debased romp. It’s difficult to know how much of our fascination derives from outrage and how much from complicit pleasure.
What makes The Futurist so tricky is that it contains its own self-critique. Yates knows that he’s an ethically bankrupt human being and that his world is an insidious place. Periodically, he feels terrible about it. Like any good cynic, he’s honest about his dishonesty, and he’s guilty about his own guilt. Yates gets to be the smartest guy in the room and the only one with a conscience. He’s a smidgen like Albert Speer in the dock, a detestable creature who saves himself through brilliant self-incrimination. There’s even a sidekick character, Blevins, a kind of sad-sack liberal Jiminy Cricket, who pops up occasionally to remind Yates that he’s “betrayed his once well-intentioned and considerable charms and used them as a cold business tool.” Yates admits that Blevins is right, but that doesn’t stop him from leaving Blevins stuck in South African customs as he zips off in his bullet-proof car to a VIP party.
The Futurist puts everyone — Yates, the reader and the author — on moral-fiber trial. Beneath our shallow bastard exterior, is there a decent person? Or just more shallow bastardry? Othmer doesn’t seem to know. His book yearns for decency but thrives on vileness. Near the end of the book, he quotes Harvard antifuturist Max Dublin:
“If we used only the knowledge we now have, and used it only for good, we could… create a better world than any of our false prophets are capable of envisioning. It is a matter not of ingenuity but of character, and it is the key to any and all possible good futures.”
At such moments, Othmer seems appalled at the state of the world, desperate for some sort of change, and truly aware of the tragedy of people like Yates. At other times — when Yates vomits on an Australian stripper’s fake breasts (you can almost hear the subtextual high-fives), or when he quips about a “wet burka contest… sponsored by Budweiser” — Othmer just seems like an asshole. The Futurist is us.
THE FUTURIST | By JAMES P. OTHMER | Doubleday | 272 pages | $24 hardcover