I just finished reading Syrup, the debut novel by clever young Aussie Max(x) Barry, who is in the early stages of what I hope grows into a long and successful career. He’s gained some recent notoriety for his second novel, Jennifer Government, which I also thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend. I loved Jenny Gov. enough to hunt down a copy of Syrup, and the two books have cemented Barry’s place on my list of favorite authors. I’ll be buying all of his books henceforth (unless they start sucking).
Syrup is about marketing, that mostly invisible yet harshly pervasive industry of manipulation lurking behind the chair and beneath the belly of pretty much every aspect of modern life. Everything you see, hear, touch, taste or smell has been marketed to you. And if you can name something that hasn’t been marketed, chances are someone is already working on a way to make money off it. Syrup’s take on the grimy-glitzy world of marketing is deeply cynical and sharply satirical, mostly because it’s so dead-on truthful. Barry himself has spent some time in that world, and his apparent mix of pride and shame can be sensed in the prose. Marketing is inherently evil, yet still pretty cool in spite of itself. The particular sort of marketing depicted in Syrup is ruthless and insidious and only very slightly exaggerated.
Our hero is a hotshot junior marketroid who dubbed himself Scat and who aspires to reach unfathomable fame and fortune by coming up with the Next Big Thing. Scat’s an idea man, and while his ideas aren’t really all that innovative, he’s one of the very few people you’ll encounter who actually pursues the kind of fleeting bright ideas we all have. The Next Big Thing is summed up in Scat’s 10-second pitch to Coke: “New cola product. Black can. Called Fukk.” The people at Coke love the concept (it’s just so ballsy you can’t resist succumbing to the aggressive charisma, what the stuff actually tastes like is inconsequential) and run with it immediately, and through his naïve excitability Scat allows his idea to be stolen away from him.
But he bounces back soon enough with yet another groundbreaking idea, with the help of his partner at Coke, the stunningly cool, savagely gorgeous, and bizarrely monikered 6. She’s young, ambitious, intelligent, cruel, calculating, and completely unattainable. Scat immediately falls hard in love with her. The two proceed through a convoluted chain of successes and failures, culminating in the biggest marketing venture ever attempted: a Coke commercial thinly veiled as a Hollywood blockbuster movie. That almost seems far-fetched and ludicrous until you realize that it’s actually been done. Ever since Elliot bonded with E.T. over a bag of Reese’s Pieces (you know the M&Ms people are still kicking themselves for passing on that), product placement in films has become ubiquitous and even more deeply ensconced.
Parts of Syrup almost read like a guidebook to sleazy marketing and cutthroat business tactics, as well as interpersonal communication. There’s an uncanny insight into the human mind, the sorts of subconscious instincts most of us know but never really think about or articulate. Reading the inner thoughts of Scat as he tries to read 6’s mixed signals is instantly identifiable, and Barry deftly articulates those reactive instincts in a way that blends surrealist parody with empirical observation.
While Syrup may tend toward fluff at first glance, that’s simply because it’s designed that way: a fast-paced and witty spoof of life. Just like the advertising that seeps into our mental pores at every turn, Syrup rides in on a wave of irony and satire, silently delivering a more powerful message that lingers after the movie ends and the cover closes. There’s a surprising amount of depth going on here, not only exploring how we perceive companies and brands, but how we perceive each other. And since we all know perception is reality, Syrup is more real than you may think.