Jonathan Dee has been a literary darling for almost a decade, but he’s the kind of novelist whose name is known mostly to publishing insiders. Novels like The Lover of History and The Liberty Campaign placed him as a smart though not smartass writer, culturally literate if not exactly hip, his sensibility floating somewhere between Updike and DeLillo. A year ago, you might have mentioned Dee’s name in the same breath as Jonathan Franzen’s—an ambitious young guy positioning himself for a crack at the Great American Novel. But then Franzen published The Corrections, knocking all the other ambitious young guys out of the running.
Both Franzen and Dee had kicked their reputations into gear in the late ’90s with the publication of heavyweight essays in Harper’s. Franzen’s piece, “Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels” (1996), was an outright manifesto; it made a case for fiction that combined a commitment to social issues with entertaining plot and sharply etched characters. Dee’s essay, “But Is It Advertising?” (1999), was more of a general cri de coeur over the way advertising was soiling everything he held dear—language, music, movies, visual art. He disputed the contemporary idea that admen were artists, and he denounced “the triumph over art of the advertising sensibility: the rapacious, ironic, wholesale appropriation of that which isn’t yours as a way of enhancing not so much the object’s value as your own.” But where Franzen fulfilled his own manifesto with The Corrections, a dazzling merger of gripping family saga and cultural critique, Dee’s Palladio is a botched effort that ironically exemplifies some of the very syndromes he lambasted in “But Is It Advertising?”
Palladio interlaces a clumsy satire of the advertising industry with a more subtly observed tale of a young woman adrift in the moral lassitude of American society. Molly Howe is a pretty girl coming of age in suburban upstate New York. She’s also inscrutable, and Dee goes to great lengths to convey the magnetic effect her opacity has on those around her: “Her languor, her inattention to the stares of others, introduced many of the boys her age in that town to the agonizing interplay between desire and fear.” Molly, on the other hand, felt “she was protecting something private, though she couldn’t have said what that something was—perhaps just protecting that space where something private might theoretically exist.” While this enigmatic quality revs up the local guys, it saps Molly of her own energy and will. In high school, she falls listlessly into an affair with the father of her baby-sitting charges, then flees to Berkeley, where she lives with her religious fanatic brother. It’s there that she meets John Wheelwright, an art student who falls madly in love with Molly, only to lose her when she vanishes without a trace.
The Molly chapters suggest Palladio might follow in the footsteps of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, whose narrator tries to unravel the ineffable mystery of girls he knew in his youth. But Dee abruptly swerves into How to Get Ahead in Advertising mode, interweaving John Wheelwright’s present-day story with Molly’s past. Now a hip young advertising exec, John has been taken under the wing of his brilliant but reclusive employer, Mal Osbourne, who is also an art collector. Osbourne asks John to accompany him on a jaunt to check out burgeoning artists. Eyeballing works that resemble Damien Hirst’s shark and Janine Antoni’s gnawed chocolate sculptures, John is skeptical (“I still think of art as making something,” he says, echoing Dee’s own demand for originality in Harper’s) but at the same time secretly excited by this provocateur. He dumps his girlfriend and moves cross country to join Osbourne’s visionary new company, Palladio.
Speechifying about the vapid nature of contemporary advertising, Osbourne imagines revolutionizing the industry by introducing the 21st-century equivalent of medieval patronage: corporations subsidizing avant-garde artists without placing any commercial restrictions on them, in the expectation that the spectacular work they create will capture the public’s attention. Vanguard artists, in turn, will have access to a vast popular audience. Dee is clearly aiming to capture how deeply culture is entangled with capitalism, but his heavy hand tips the whole thing into crude polemics. While Osbourne spins his brand of rhetoric, anti-advertising guerrillas CultureTrust (based on real-life culture jammers) mount their own: “Dissent is the art. And crushing dissent . . . is the business that you’re in. Swallowing it, bastardizing it, defanging it, eliminating it.”
Meanwhile, Dee juggles John and Molly’s separate narratives as if building toward some romantic conclusion. Molly eventually arrives at Palladio as the paramour of Dex, a hip Lower East Side filmmaker burning to make a documentary exposing Osbourne and “the incredible phoniness of it, the way this guy is held up as . . . a revolutionary.” She bumps into John, who is still nursing idealized memories of her from college days. But what should have been a glorious denouement is just a dead end: John and Molly are too emotionally numb to hold each other’s attention, let alone the reader’s. They are ciphers stumbling through life looking for something authentic in the world, only to become ensnared in Osbourne’s flamboyantly fabricated world—though he too believes he is the real thing.
Dee’s ambition is almost as grand as Osbourne’s, and it’s imprinted all over Palladio. Unfortunately, the novel of ideas is a tough trick to pull off at the best of times, and Dee is struggling to find new insights on a topic already thoroughly probed by nonfiction writers like Tom Frank (The Conquest of Cool) and Naomi Klein (No Logo). Dee is so absorbed with depicting the vapid vortex of the ad industry that he forgets to give us compellingly rendered characters. Ultimately Palladio is a failure of the imagination. In his Harper’s essay, Dee argued that the obligation of the artist is to bring “something into the world that wasn’t there before” rather than simply to recombine and recontextualize pop-cultural found objects. It’s somewhat damning, then, that nearly all of Osbourne’s schemes are taken straight from old issues of Advertising Age (for instance, his use of “transgressive images” as a way of “making yourself heard above the cultural noise” is a barefaced appropriation of Oliviero Toscani’s notorious, early-’90s Benetton campaigns, with their ads featuring a bloody newborn or a dying AIDS patient). And the real world has already surpassed his own imaginings: Last fall, Bulgari paid Fay Weldon handsomely to write a novel featuring numerous product placements. But the literary community emitted only weak bleats of indignation in response—nothing like the roiling outrage depicted in the novel. Dee should have known that our culture absorbs each new shock as quickly as you can say Enron, and every moment he spent writing Palladio he fell one step behind.
Also in This Week’s Books Section:
Emily Jenkins on Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé
Mark Greif on Night Games and Other Stories and Novellas by Arthur Schnitzler