By Lachlan Blain
The neon orange cover of Ennis Ćehić’s debut work, Sadvertising, cuts through the noise and catches the reader’s eye.
Attention now focused, the consumer next sees the celebrity testimonial: Christos Tsiolkas’ front and centre endorsement of the short story collection.
Finally, their eyes turn to the text near the cover’s spine—and there it is: the book’s unique selling point: ‘stories from the margins of creativity.’
We live in a world saturated by advertising. More than that, our world often seems to be propelled along by advertising, held up and kept spinning on its axis towards the next fiscal quarter by omnipresent marketing forces. It’s inevitable that even a book like Sadvertising, which thoroughly deconstructs the advertising industry, must still submit to these forces and be neatly packaged and marketed like everything else.
For the record, I am sure that Ćehić himself would approve of this in his wistful, ironic style. He would probably hold it up as one final statement of his collection’s most cogent throughline: the ambivalent fate of the creative professional working under late capitalism.
While Ćehić no doubt chose to set most of his 50 stories within the advertising industry because he is a copywriter himself, his choice of setting is particularly illuminating when it comes to his interest in the absurdities and contradictions of our twenty-first century lives. After all, the advertising industry and the people that populate it have their fingers closer than most to the pulse of our global economic system. For Ćehić and many of the characters found within his stories, it seems their proximity to the engine of capitalism exposes them particularly keenly to the nagging worm at its core: endless production, ceaseless creation—for what?
Creatively frustrated by the industry’s financial imperatives or drowning in a deluge of mindless corporate-speak, some of Ćehić’s characters accept their fate while others rebel. A team of copywriters announce on an ordinary Wednesday that they are not copywriters anymore, but poets. An introverted executive builds himself a fortified desk bunker. A bored employee writes a bestselling book during the meetings she is subjected to every week—aptly named The Meaningless of Meetings.
Interspersed among these stories of the everyday are more fantastical adventures: an art director loses his imagination; a brand logo sprouts legs and returns to its creator; and a robotics student outfits his brain with an ad blocker.
As many of the stories are barely longer than a page, the fantastic and the prosaic blend together, and an unexpected rupture in reality or a surreal breakdown in daily routine never feels far away. The effect goes both ways: on one page, the reader might revel in an exhilarating victory over the strictures of the modern workplace, and on the next, find the logic of this world harmlessly restored, as firm and unshakeable as ever.
The result is not an unambiguous triumph over the forces of late capitalism, nor a despairing capitulation to them, but rather something closer to real life. Ćehić constructs, in mosaic form, a picture of our precarious twenty-first century reality: a world where the absurd or surreal might burst through the banal at any time, and where everything, but perhaps nothing, can change in a day.
For the modern creative, these contradictions are sharper and more desperately felt. Here is a career where you may exercise boundless creativity, but within these limits, towards these brand deliverables. Anything goes, the absurd and even the defiant, so long as it is marketable—as the introverted executive learns when his at-first bemused co-workers see the makings of a mental health campaign in his makeshift fort.
And so finally we arrive at Ćehić and Sadvertising itself. Hasn’t Ćehić here, no doubt a frustrated creative professional himself, at least won an unambiguous victory over the forces that restrict creativity? He has, after all, channelled his own frustrations into the outlet of creative writing, and had a darkly inventive collection of his stories published by Penguin Random House to boot.
But that there, perhaps—the name of its publisher—is a hint at Sadvertising’s own creative compromise. In a publishing world dominated by mergers, endless sequels and celebrity cookbooks, all in the name of financial returns, Sadvertising must play the game too, conform somewhat like the industry it satirises to marketing dictates. I doubt, for instance, that a big publisher such as Penguin Random House would ever publish a 100 page short story collection, but I do feel a distilled selection of Ćehić’s very best stories would have fulfilled his vision in a more satisfying way than Sadvertising’s somewhat bloated and at times hit-and-miss 50 story line-up.
Satisfying creatively, of course, but not financially. Here is, once again, a modern dilemma in microcosm: creative freedom or practical reality—or, more likely, a careful compromise between the two?
And if our contemporary predicament is all too much, remember as Sadvertising teaches us: you could do worse than make a hidden fortress out of your corner office to escape from the world for a while. If you get really lucky, someone might even come and buy the rights for the thing off you.
Sadvertising was published by Random House Australia and has an RRP of $32.99. It is available from most online and local retailers.
Lachlan Blain is a student at the University of Melbourne who is currently studying the Master of Publishing and Communications. He also works part-time as an academic English editor. He enjoys reading old pulpy sci-fi novels in his spare time.