“I’m an asshole and not loyal to anyone, not even myself.”
Just what makes people laugh is hard to predict, and although I’m always on a quest to read something comic, it’s rare that a book is so funny that I laugh out loud. For sheer unadulterated cheek, The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei is going to make my best of the year list. It’s not a perfect book, and it wobbled on the ending, but I loved this book for its no-holds barred, outrageously nasty narrator. For anyone who’s read and enjoyed early Max Barry (Syrup, Company), you should know what I’m talking about when I say that The Deep Whatsis, set in the cutthroat corporate world intent on downsizing, could be written by Max Barry’s evil twin brother. If he had one that is. As much as I enjoyed this book, my wholehearted recommendation comes with a Black Box Warning: if you’ve recently been the victim of downsizing or termination, or if the prospect looms in the near future, then you probably shouldn’t read The Deep Whatsis as it might send you spiraling into the abyss.
Our pathological liar narrator, Eric Nye is thirty-three, a right piece of work who’s hired at an indecently huge salary by Tate, a worldwide ad agency as “Executive Creative Director slash Chief Idea Officer.” Nye’s job is to move into the New York offices and “clean house,”–a euphemism for firing people. According to Nye he was “brought in to create a culture of innovation and creativity, meaning get rid of the dead wood, shitcan the old and the slow and the weak.” Nye is already horribly overpaid, but he’s also slated to get a big fat bonus if he meets his goal to fire 50% of the staff. Those targeted for termination are in their late 40s and over–those about to qualify for a small pension. Together with the anorexic ”HR lady,” Nye “creates a dynamic of fear,” as he selects one person after another for firing and then begins his “danse macabre” with his “prey.” Nye compares the way he has developed of ”ritualizing” his elaborate methods of firing employees to bullfighting, and of course, he’s the armed matador. It’s a well-drawn comparison, for Nye ruthlessly plays with his victims, letting them know that his attention is on them which sparks a frantic range of paranoid reactions in those about to be fired.
So while Nye spends his days at work (when he bothers to show up) either firing his next victim or playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the next candidate for downsizing, he spends his nights in a hazy drunken state. And it’s this sort of soulless behaviour that leads to Nye’s “meta-doom” when he takes a girl he cavalierly calls “Intern” back to his swanky pad full of expensive designer items–including his eight-hundred-dollar Dalai Lama Edition Tibetan throw rug. There’s something about this girl he just can’t shake, and when she joins the Tate office, Nye begins to get the uncomfortable feeling that he has a stalker.
The story careens between Nye’s heavily medicated days at the office and his drunken and chemically wrecked nights–some of which are spent with Nye’s only friend (and I’m using that term loosely), Seth Krallman “playwright turned pot dealer turned yoga guru,“ who hopes that Nye will get him a job and purchase his expensive car. Nye, a would be-playwright stuck on page two, and Seth secretly despise one another. Here’s Nye on the subject of Seth:
He’s a pretentious idiot, a so-called avant garde playwright who had twelve or thirteen seconds of notoriety in the east Village in the late ’90s when he chained himself to the stage of a tiny theater for a month as some kind of protest slash performance, peeing in a crystal bowl and mixing it with champagne and drinking it every night at precisely midnight, while reciting some poetry.
In a world obsessed with the getting and spending of money, the morally reprehensible Nye is aware that there’s no meaning to life. Even art is served up as some sort of tasteless parody of itself, and in one section Nye attends an art show called, “Show Us Your Tits!” While Nye claims to “feel fine” about cutting employee after employee loose, and outwardly appears to enjoy the massacre he’s conducting at the office, there are indications that at least on some level, he’s paying a price for his cutthroat behaviour. Perhaps it’s his conscience that causes his insomnia and lack of appetite. With his life in a downward spiral, Nye still manages to operate on two levels–on one level he’s slick, hip and conscienceless, but there’s also a sly self-awareness.
Here’s Nye lying to a therapist:
“I’ve never really had a relationship with anyone and I’m thirty-three. I guess that’s not so weird since the advent of video games and reality television, not to mention that new porno app everybody is talking about, thirty-three is the new nine.”
Then I put an unexpected twist into the story, a MacGuffin.
“I guess it all goes back to my mom,” I say and then without thinking what’s coming up next, there it is sliding out of my mouth. “She died in a car accident when I was ten years old. I saw the whole thing.”
The rest of it writes itself. “I was standing in our front yard and my mom was driving down the street. In my mental re-creation of that day I surmise that she was drunk because when she got to our house instead of slowing down to let a garbage truck pass she must have hit the gas instead of the brake. She lurched forward right into the front of the truck as it was zooming by.”
I figure this would be an excellent place for a pause and so I put one there. I look up at him and waited, wondering why I am making up all these tales when there are perfectly valid truths I could be telling him.
The Deep Whatsis is hilariously, savagely funny, and so of course, while Nye’s victims pile up, we can’t wait for him to get his comeuppance. Even Nye, who is unleashed at Tate, has to answer to someone, and in one wonderful scene, he’s called in to get chewed out by his boss.
What a disgusting man, I think, how many awful chemicals there must be lodged in every crevice of every tissue of his body, which may be why at sixty-whatever he’s still working here, still alive preserved in chemicals, he’ll never die because technically he’s already dead, he’s undead, he’s pickled by fear, lies, and nicotine.
“I gotta get off the goddamn phone,” he says to whoever he’s talking to and tosses the thing away. “Nye,” he says to no one in particular but since that is my name I know he must mean me, “get your hipster ass in here.” Then he stuffs his breakfast sandwich into the fleshy maw located in the center of his colorless face and keeps pushing until most of it is jammed in there and then he begins chewing, bent over the desk so that the egg yolk drips out and runs down over his chin like yellow chicken cum onto the crumpled tin foil in front of him. “Where’s your cohort?”
“I wanted to talk to you first, just the two of us,” I explain.
“Fine, good, now I can chew your ass out in private.”
“That’s what I figured, sir.”
“Close the door and don’t call me sir. I know you hate my guts.” Barry is worth at least fifty or sixty million since the agency was sold to La Groupe S. A, the holding company that owns the holding company owned by M. J-C.
“I don’t hate your guts, Bar,” I say, “I love you,” and at the moment this is basically true. He puts down the last bit of his egg-and-sausage, sucks at the ends of his fingers, and reaches for the smoldering Newport sitting in the battery-operated vacuum-action ashtray that sits next to the Smoke Eater. He takes a long drag on the butt and leans over toward the machine and exhales into it again like it’s some girl or cat he’s trying to get high. I almost expect him to tongue the thing.
“I assume you don’t mind if I smoke,” he says, probably reading from a script he wrote for legal reasons; but sitting here I’ve clearly given up my right to take action. “They don’t even let me smoke outside this building any more, can you believe that? Somebody complained about the secondhand smoke out on the sidewalk. It’s New York Fucking City, it’s Tenth Fucking Avenue.”
“Times change, I guess.”
“Oh shut the fuck up you asshole,” he says to me.
The Deep Whatsis is a very funny novel, but there are some ugly truths here as we see Nye trying to grab that bonus. In order to succeed, he’s supposed to leave every shred of humanity behind, and he does this quite successfully, refusing to “sugar-coat” the firing process or pretty it up as something that it clearly isn’t. In Nye’s world, empathy is seen as weakness while sociopathic tendencies almost guarantee success in the corporate world in which savagery, self-centeredness and self-promotion trump all other human qualities. Nye fires people with gusto, those with new babies, those with disabled relatives, and even one man for wearing pleated Dockers–no one is spared. And while he appears to take glee in his work and his well-honed psychological warfare, he despises himself for what he has become–a cog in the corporate machine, gradually losing his grip on reality. Original, subversive and savagely funny (loved the Wikipedia page) this book, replete with Nye’s various theories of life, offers a dark portrait of the cutthroat nature of the corporate world and the vapidity of our consumerist society in which the void left by a lack of humanity is filled with meaningless objects.