Commercial Fiction by Dave Housley
I read a novel several years ago where the author referenced brand names in every scene. His characters wouldn’t simply sit down in a restaurant and order. No, they would climb out of their Ford Rangers, hitch up their dark blue Levi’s jeans, glance impatiently at their Casio watches, and then order a Sprite.
I suppose the author was trying to add a level of realistic detail. But it was a pretty miserable read; I don’t know anyone who actually thinks this way, who is so deeply connected to name brands that they become anchor points for navigating through the world.
Yet, while we may not always be conscious of them, we do live in a world saturated with brands. Dave Housley’s collection of short stories, Commercial Fiction, examines familiar advertisements for these brands, and asks us to consider what all these marketing messages are really telling us about ourselves.
So here’s the premise of the book: what if the world actually worked the way it’s depicted in commercials? In those Cialis commercials with the side-by-side bathtubs at a hillside resort—who actually lugged all the water up there? And just how romantic is it lie in rapidly cooling water, in separate tubs, in public, waiting for a little pill to do its magic? Or in those Lexus commercials that come out every Christmas, where there’s a surprise car in the driveway with a huge red bow on it—how would someone respond when they realize their spouse just took on a sizeable new car payment, on top of the mortgage they can already barely afford, without consulting them?
Maybe the way commercials ask us to use their products isn’t always the best course of action.
You’ll probably remember some of the commercials, but most are also available on the book publisher’s website. Since many of the stories take place right after the commercial ends, watching them as you read through the book can be helpful.
For instance, there’s a commercial from a couple years ago for Canada Dry Ginger Ale, where a young girl discovers her magical ability to unearth truckfuls of ginger ale by literally pulling it right out of a ginger field. Dozens of people are lined up, marveling, as the commercial ends. Where does it all lead? The story picks up after the last shot of the commercial, where the actors’ expressions of awestruck wonder foreshadow the creation of, essentially, a cult, whose followers defend the girl’s supernatural ability with religious fervor.
While there’s humor here—the logical extension of some of these ads would be pretty extreme—Housley’s strongest work critiques the messianic undercurrent of these commercials. There’s the disturbing story of the young woman who finally “gets” her sister, after seeing her come alive while eating a McDonalds hamburger, and realizes, as she runs toward the table, that these burgers will bring her true joy, too.
At turns hilarious and unsettling, Housley’s stories remind us to consider not just why we buy these products, but what purpose we expect them to fulfill. It’s pop culture critique at its finest.
- Ben Henderson lives in Pine Grove Mills.