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In Print: Jim Munroe's ad nausea

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Hey, d'ya feel rushed for time? Better make some money, cuz before you know it your pension'll be as obsolete as the government--or so predicts Jim Munroe's new novel, Everyone in Silico. It's Vancouver, 2036, and assuming you've survived the Harmless Crank rebellion and the 2023 takeover of the world by the United Corporate Interests Council (formerly the IMF), you'll be keen to escape the unpalatable air and rabid, ubiquitous marketers of the analog city for Frisco, a digital paradise owned by Self Technologies. For a fee, Self will store your carcass--though they won't tell you how or where--and move your spirit to the E-city. In Frisco, your virtual body need never sleep, pee, or even whip out a cash card, as everything's deducted automatically from your bank account. The catch is that nothing's cheap, and after you run out of money you'll get relocated to a real-world sweatshop of Self's choosing. You could stay in your skin and cower in a gated community, but the freelance adslingers and coolhunters will probably get you anyway.

Toronto-based writer Munroe is the former managing editor of Adbusters magazine, which has made a name for itself by using the conventions of advertising to lay bare corporate duplicity and doublespeak. In Everyone in Silico, his third novel, he spins his scorn for the corporate machine into a hellish future in which art's been replaced by advertising and status is taken so seriously that if the Gap kills your kid for shoplifting, you get blamed for not dressing him well enough.

The line between art and advertising, which Adbusters pokes at so aggressively, is central here. Munroe loves the idea of an all-encompassing aesthetic in art--the way, for instance, that Oscar Wilde adopted the affectations of the upper class as part of a grand satire that went beyond the page. But, he says, "while art is saying a variety of things--from 'The human spirit is unbreakable' to 'Look at me, aren't I clever?'--ads are basically saying one thing over and over." When the wit is stripped from Wilde's statement, all that's left is the very thing he's critiquing; when art's only purpose is to sell goods, it ceases to be art.

Every character in the book faces the same apparently in-escapable dilemma: live short 'n' brutal in this cutthroat ma-terialistic hell or save your pennies to "live" in Frisco as long as you can afford it. Possible salvation arrives, however, in the form of a retired corporate mercenary named Eileen, who straps her frail body into a wired, armored "blacksuit" to penetrate a Self office, seeking the body of her teenage clone, whom she thinks has been kidnapped. She finds the place abandoned, but not empty; hiding in plain view are members of a resistance who, starved for information about Self, have been awaiting someone with the technology to go after the data.

Munroe pulls off smooth point-of-view switches between the half dozen or so protagonists, and his compassionate rendering of his many characters provides a detailed view of the terrorscape. Thanks to his delicious, unobtrusive prose, the anticonsumerist warnings that sound throughout the novel eventually get under your skin--you'll be lucky to finish some chapters without hacking up your PepsiCo products, and if you get telemarketed while reading you may not sleep that night. "The growing anxiety in the book is how I see the future going," says Munroe. "Not exploding in a ball of flame, but the quality of life disintegrating, like a hole in a sweater that just gets bigger and bigger."

At Adbusters Munroe helped popularize culture jamming--the art of pulling pranks to mock and unmask the manipulations of advertising. In conjunction with the release of his book, Munroe invoiced every corporation whose name appears in the novel for a product-placement fee; predictably, no one paid up. He'll read from the past-due notices he sent to the accounts payable departments of Nike, Starbucks, Molson, and others at 8 on Friday, November 29, at Quimby's, 1854 W. North. Local writer Todd Dills, who's joined Munroe for the eastern leg of his book tour, will also read from his work; call 773-342-0910.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Venright.

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