Rather than let the relentless absurdity of headline news get us down, my friends and I like to play the occasional e-mail round of “Real News or Onion Headline?” You’ve probably played some version of it before (or watched The Daily Show). It’s a good way of laughing to save our sanity, rather than altogether cracking up. My most recent entry that wasn’t from the Republican debates came from the sports world (which, much like the primary elections, is run by corporation-persons; in fact, probably many of the same corporation-persons!). It read: “Indiana Pacers’ Arena Renamed Bankers Life Fieldhouse.”
I thought of “Bankers Life Fieldhouse” when I came to a passage early in Miles Klee’s darkly funny debut novel, Ivyland. There’s a rolling blackout in the book’s eponymous town, and when the characters DH and Leviticus go outside to investigate, they register—with prescription drug subdue—a riot scene, apparently in response to the territorial encroachment of the town’s monopoly subsidizer, a faceless pharmaceutical corporation(-person):
If the bright new street sign isn’t a prank, Clark Ave. has been renamed “Bladderade Boulevard.” As in, the Adderade flavor that helps old folks with urine flow and control.
In this and so many other too-real moments, Ivyland hits too close to home to be read as a satirical lens on a bleak future—or even on a bleak near-future. Given the actual existence of once-civic gathering places now bearing names like Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the future has arrived. Ivyland’s vignette-like episodes, which alternate between banal and high-stakes absurdity, are definitely sketches of the end-times; but they spare us any finger-wagging didacticism about the perils of social media as substitute for real experience. Instead, Ivyland is preoccupied with the waning sense of place that sets in when every dimension of civil life is sponsored by your friendly neighborhood behemoth. Contrary to the techno-dystopia leanings of novels like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, it’s not the gadgetry of social networking that alienates us from a sense of belonging in a world. It’s that the world is always and everywhere brought to you by . . .
Not funny ha-ha; more like funny uh-oh. Something, this place, our place in it, is at stake. “What strikes me as so funny,” DH observes after the riot scene, “is that nothing’s funny at all, and I take a moment to collapse with painful gasps of laughter that are themselves the funniest things and over too soon.”
Read the full interview in BOMB magazine