Have you ever attempted chit chat palindromes,
where you try to make small talk that would be heard (or read) the same
backwards as forwards? Well, after helping a friend move, we gave this game
a shot. Our word play grew more intense after his car broke down in the
liveliest crackhead hangout in the District of Columbia. We thought it would
kill time, and we were momentarily right, but I guess we just seemed
snooty. An irritated local threw my friend to the sidewalk and mugged
him, and I screamed, saw the criminal run, and felt my handbag cower in my
arms, feeling oddly dissed. Since then, we've become too conscious of our
surroundings to play our most complicated word games, and have even failed
at lipogrammatic conversations where we simply must avoid the letter "Q".
It's sad what criminals can take from you.
We'd hoped to find a photo of Brian Gage at his website, but as he's a Flash developer, we couldn't swipe it. And it was too small anyway. So you'll have to be content with looking at the cover of Snark Inc: A Corporate Fable, out now from Soft Skull Press and available from Powell's Books, among others.
Still, I refuse to let victimhood leave me scarred and neoconservative, so I
jumped at the chance to interview Brian Gage, writer of the unusual adult picture book
Snark Inc.. Though his politics were even more downbeat and leftist
than my Angela Davis phase in grad school, the content behind his unclassifiable work fascinated me. It made my questions spill out rapidly, eagerly, unpalindromatically. His answers came back in similar
fashion. I think the responses will assure fans of his book and elaborate
website that Gage is no one-hit, office-destroying anarchist, but a
thoughtful, office-destroying connoisseur of the written word.
· · · · · · ·
Splendid: How did you come up with the name Snark®?
Brian Gage: Lying in bed about a month after graduating from
college wondering what on Earth I was going to do with my life -- I was tired
of being a janitor and certainly didn't want a corporate serf job. I was
having terrible insomnia and was in one of those translucent states (right
between being awake and falling asleep) -- then all of a sudden I was aware
of this little rhyme that was bouncing around in my head and the word Snark
just popped in somewhere.
Splendid: Does it have any relation to the Lewis Carroll poem or
does it refer to something else?
Brian Gage: I hate to admit it, but I never discovered The Hunting of the Snark until
I showed Snark Inc. to a friend and he asked the same question. Our
Snarks are very much different entities -- mine is a metaphor for
materialism and greed. Carroll's is half snail, half shark, I believe.
Splendid: Did you have any particular corporate models in mind
when you wrote this?
Brian Gage: No. The Snark Corporation represents corporate power.
Take the worst of the worst, and that's my model.
Splendid: Could you comment on women getting short shrift when no
one in the "small little part of SnarkŪ, USA" who's female recognizes Will's
internal superiority of character, rather than his lack of SnarkŪ pearls?
Brian Gage: I'm so glad you asked me this question. I kept
wondering when I'd get called on it. It's not that women get the short end
of the stick, and I hope that my female readers don't feel this is the case.
I'm sure somewhere in the Snark Universe there are women who would recognize
Will's internal strength, and there are definitely some "Wilmas" struggling
the same fight. However, the narrative I wanted to forge wouldn't have
worked unless everyone in the book was a product obsessed, materialistic
robot. The story is a tale of corporations' misanthropic nature and power
over individual freedom, and I wanted to focus only on one person's plight.
Splendid: What's your favorite movie, book, and artist?
Brian Gage: For movie, The Shining. For book: a tie between
The Grapes of Wrath and Things Fall Apart. Artist: Stanley
Splendid: Whose work influenced you most, if anyone's work did
influence you, when writing this story?
Brian Gage: I love the lack of redemption in Stanley Kubrick
films, and that seems to be a recurring theme in everything I do. No
redemption. I'd say for this book Dr. Seuss and
Gorey were also influences.
Splendid: Who was your first writing teacher, and how did s/he
affect your future work?
Brian Gage: I was attending college in my hometown (Youngstown,
Ohio) and was taking an English lit class. The professor pulled me aside
after a few essays I had written and encouraged me to go into writing as she
felt I had a gift for it -- I believe I was 18 or 19 at the time. That stuck
in my head, and I've been getting the same feedback as I continue to write.
Hopefully, I always will. I don't think I'm here for any other reason...
Splendid: Did you choose Tom Ellsworth for his art, or were you friends who had similar social/artistic sensibilities?
Brian Gage: I had never met Tom until I took a class on how to
illustrate and publish your own children's books (That's children's books you've written yourself, I'm assuming -- not books your kids have written -- Ed.). I signed up for the class
knowing I couldn't draw, and hoping to meet someone who could. Tom was
invited into the class to give a perspective of what a professional
illustrator goes through. I just happened to be reading my story to the
class when he was our guest. Afterwards, he approached me and told me he'd
like to illustrate. I was sold the second I saw his illustrative style -- it
fit exactly what I thought the art should look like. Since the book, Tom has
become one of my closest friends. We do have very similar social
sensibilities; however, I think we are driven by different artistic motors.
Tom's art is most often driven by the personal, whereas mine seems to be
only driven by social issues.
Splendid: Will is wide-eyed like a doe; the evil villain boss man
looks a little like Jafar (from the Disney film Aladdin). Did the two of
you choose to skewer Disney with your illustrations?
Brian Gage: Forgive me, but I don't know who Jafar is. But I know
Tom is very influenced by Disney artists. And the goal of the book was to
parody kids' books, so it seemed appropriate to have it look as bold and
lush as possible. If that happens to encroach on Disney, then I think that
goal was accomplished.
Splendid: Is there anything at all redeeming about any corporate
Brian Gage: In its current state, no. The problem is there isn't
enough democratic input from the workers on any level. Instead, most
corporate cultures have a firm "love it or leave it/employment at will"
clause, and dissent is not welcome on any level. Everyone in the US loves to
tout their love of democracy, but just mention implementing a democratic
environment in your workplace and see how many friends start waving their
post-9/11-purchased American flags. That's a serious problem when
considering people are brainwashed into the notion they're living in a free
society that values democracy. If you don't have any input into the entity
that controls your life the most (your job) then freedom becomes moot.
I'm a firm believer that those who work in the factories and cubicles should
have ownership and stake in the companies. Unions do exist; however, you're
noticing those jobs (especially in the automotive industry) are slipping to
places where unionizing won't occur, or south of the border. Partly thanks to
NAFTA and partly thanks to the fact that workers in third world nations are
just thankful to have jobs -- you can forget about them organizing against
the employer to get better salary and benefits. They are intimidated,
belittled, and frightened into keeping their mouths shut. This was the case
in the US until the Wagner Act was passed. After that you saw a massive
onslaught of propaganda to demonize unions and indoctrinate people into what
was being called "The Capitalist Story" by the business class. It would be
misleading to suggest that The Wagner Act solved all problems facing labor
in the US -- labor abuse is still rampant in this country. It basically
boils down to the fact that people have no voice in controlling corporations
and that, in essence, delivers power into the hands of unaccountable private
Splendid: Do you have any faith in companies that create
earth-friendly products, actively seek to hire disabled employees, recycle,
donate portions of their profits to charity, use products made from
Brian Gage: Of course. I'm not so blinded by my disdain for the
corporate power structure that I lose sight of things that benefit people's
lives. The problem isn't really people trying to make profits -- that has
existed since the beginning of recorded history. The problem is when people
become a source of human capital in profit creation, and the corporations
run amok with rampant and unchecked power. If someone tries to argue that that
doesn't exist, I'd recommend they look into the Enron fiasco. Corporations
are greedy, market-interfering institutions by their nature. They are
modeled after modern-day fascist institutions with all the power being at
the top and those at the bottom having no say. The longer the workers (from
the migrant farm worker to the receptionist answering phones) let the power
stay at the top without making strides for a democratic voice amongst the
workforce, the more the people lose.
Splendid: What is your vision of non-corporate utopia?
Brian Gage: I don't really think utopia exists. A friend and I were having a conversation
earlier about how all philosophers are revered because they never had to put
their visions into practice. But politicians are very much political
philosophers who have to implement their vision in the real world. That's
where the utopia falls apart. I don't know anybody who doesn't think their
way is the right way, but start to implement that in society and things fall
apart. Be it capitalism, communism or socialism. I think my idea of
non-corporate utopia would be a place where profits were not put before
people. That to me is one of the largest problems we're facing today and an
element of Corporate America that needs to be quashed as fast as we can do
Splendid: Who do you prefer as a poet: Ogden Nash or Lewis
Carroll? Which modern poet influences you in the poetry arena?
Brian Gage: I don't consider myself to be a poet. The verse in the
book is merely a tool to further the function of the narrative. After this
three-book series, I hope to never rhyme anything again. It's fun to read,
but very tedious to write. But to answer your question -- I think Bukowski is
amazing. Among more contemporary poets, Daphne
Gottlieb is very talented.
Splendid: What rhymes with SnarkŪ, and how much did that influence
your choice of corporate name?
Brian Gage: It had no influence -- like I said, the whole thing
came to me in a strange dream-like state. Luckily, I was able to keep myself
from drifting to bed and I woke to write what was going on in my head.
Splendid: How did you choose your rhyme scheme for the SnarkŪ
Brian Gage: The rhyme scheme is very Seussian, and I'd like to
pretend that was on purpose, but all of a sudden it was just pouring onto
paper. I didn't sit down and say okay, now I'm going to write a satirical
rhyme about corporations. Snark Inc. is probably the most inspired
piece I've ever written -- I think I had the first draft written in four
hours. Once it was all hashed out, I began to think of ways to feasibly get
it published. The parody of a kid's book seemed the best route.
Splendid: D'you remember the first poem you read, or the one that
had the greatest influence on you, when you were a child?
Brian Gage: Without a doubt -- "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe.
Splendid: Who do you see as your audience for Snark Inc.?
Brian Gage: So far the audience has been exactly what we thought -- mostly disenfranchised 20-somethings who were raised on MTV,
told they were going to be movie stars, rock and roll singers, etc. Now
they're all coming to the realization that that's not necessarily true, and
it's a bit sobering. I think Snark Inc. appeals to that cynical
sensibility that seems so engrained in my generation (I'm 28). Sometimes,
I'm surprised at the very personal level upon which people my age relate to
the book. I had a woman approach me at a book conference in New York and
tell me she wished Snark Inc. was what her parents read to her as a
child. I thought that was a great compliment. I recently heard someone
describe the book as "Dr. Seuss meets Fight Club", and that about sums it up
Splendid: Since the art work and rhyming will attract kids, do you
think the book's message is one that'll be teachable in schools?
Brian Gage: The message is definitely teachable in schools, but I
don't think this is the book with which to do it. For a cutesy book with
rhymes and illustrations, Snark Inc. has a very serious agenda, and I
don't think kids would appreciate it. In fact, I fought with Sander at the
beginning because he wanted to market it towards kids. I just don't feel
this is a book for kids on any level. It was created for people like myself
who are fed up with the drudgery of the so-called American Dream.
Splendid: Were there ever alternate endings for the book?
Brian Gage: No. That's the only thing I really stood by. I
basically said to everyone who came in contact with it that the ending must
stay intact or the book wouldn't happen. I'd rather have the mock-up sitting
on my shelf collecting dust than to sell out the ending, because to me that's
what gives the whole thing teeth.
Splendid: Was the ending your way of keeping the book real? Or was
it like one of Aesop's fables: show the consequences and let us judge?
Brian Gage: The ending is just a metaphor for what happens to
someone if he/she loses sight of his/her beliefs. Yet I like that (Aesop) idea
quite a bit, but it wasn't my inclination. Who's to say that I'm right? Just
because my antenna picked up on the signal first doesn't mean I necessarily
interpreted the message correctly. Sometimes I think that's what art is all
about -- the audience guiding the interpretation.
Splendid: Are you getting positive response to the book so far?
Brian Gage: Amazing responses. The book is headed into its second
printing in less than three months. I feel very happy about this, seeing as it's a
book from an unknown author and it's had basically zero publicity. And as I
said before, people who approach me or emails that I get, all seem to have a
very personal relationship with the book, and they are very excited about
it. I get a lot that someone purchased it and liked it so much they bought
it for a friend or relative. One guy sent me an email saying he handed it in
to his employer along with his resignation. I think that's my favorite one.
Splendid: In a world with such a domineering global economic
culture that economists are suggesting the cost of a Big Mac in various
countries be used as a benchmark of a country's economic welfare, what
message about corporate culture, exactly, do you want to convey?
Brian Gage: Lovely question. This is exactly what I want to
convey: The noose is tightening. And the only way we can end this
never-ending cycle of crass consumerism and profits over people is through
consumer revolt. In the end, all of our masters are just business people. If
we as a culture would stand up and say, we're not going to buy your products
or work your low paying jobs -- we want a more equal playing field, they are
bound to comply or lose their businesses.
This recent backlash against corporations is nothing more than a modern day class
struggle and a struggle for equality -- people are catching on. It's about
having real freedom of choice and not just a choice in the color of your
Toyota. As you mentioned above, there are corporations that are ethical, and
do their part to better the society from which they make their profits, but
those entities are too few. It's up to us to educate ourselves on which
corporations to buy from. I saw an article recently where CBS was
steamrolling its logo into stretches of beach sand in New Jersey.
Personally, I'll take my beaches the old fashioned way...
Splendid: Do you see any positive effects at all of the influence global
corporate culture has on art today?
Brian Gage: No -- Unless you consider homogeny and banality to be
Splendid: What's your opinion of the independent cultural
movements in this country today ?
Brian Gage: I hope everyone involved in any of today's relevant
movements (DIY, Hip Hop, Culture Jamming, etc) continue to persevere and
take back some of the mental landscape. They are all that's left in the
battle for free and original thought. There is a day coming when television
will take over the world, all food will taste the same, people will read the
same things, listen to the same music, and all crave it all at the exact
same time. It seems like people are evolving into ants.
I hope that anyone who has an independent voice or likes independently
minded art continues to do what they do, create it, support it, be it, and
free a few other minds in the process.
Splendid: 9-11 questions are getting rather tiresome, but this
one's worth asking: do you feel that people will truly become less
materialistic in the wake of the events of 9-11 (and any future terrorism
we'll probably experience here)?
Brian Gage: No. Media and advertising have too much of a
stranglehold on people's minds. Whatever the TV says, the masses follow.
Especially when you see Bush on television telling families to "Get out with
your families and go to Disneyland." Do it for America. I think that was the
day my TV was officially moved to curbside.
Unless you're pro-Bush or just foolish, it's entirely obvious that most of
the "threats" are a method of controlling the public. Especially with the
silly terrorist traffic light -- that's outrageous and I can't believe the
American people stomach it. When I first read about it, I thought I had
accidentally entered an alternate Orwellian Universe. I'm floored that tax
dollars were wasted on planning that stupid thing. I just can't get the
boardroom meeting from playing in my head: "Hey Rumsfeld, let's pick five
arbitrary colors, and then create arbitrary parameters in which we will
change the levels of the colors. It won't make any sense but the American
people will love it because they saw it on TV!"
Seriously, if people are flying planes into our buildings and all they can
do is give us an elongated traffic light, they're obviously clueless on how
to handle the situation. And the travesty is that the American public
swallowed it. I just don't see how anyone can take it seriously unless
they're already programmed to believe anything they're told. I just hope it
all goes away soon -- terrorism, Ashcroft and the rest of the Bush
Administration, and that silly traffic light. If this is my government
working for me, then I want to pick a new one.
Splendid: Do you think once people get over having the bejeezus
scared out of them, residents of the United States will be back to SnarkŪ-y
business as usual?
Brian Gage: It was business as usual right after the attack. Only
the perception changed. Right after the attacks patriotism became as chic as
toting around a Prada bag. American flags were the hottest commodity someone
could buy and statistically most of those people didn't vote in the last
election, nor would they have known who their congressman was. But they were
proud to tout their love of Democracy. Give me a break.
Splendid: Could you talk about your next project, The Amazing
Brian Gage: Sure. It's the follow up to Snark Inc. (There's
actually three books in the series). It's a modern-day Pied Piper, and the
focus of the book is mass media and its control of the public mind, which is
one of my favorite topics.
Splendid: Do you think you're always going to be making social
critiques with your art, or was SnarkŪ a one statement deal?
Brian Gage: Yes, my work is only inspired by social concerns and
political commentary. I just sold another book to Soft Skull which will be a true kids book -- it's an
allegory of modern day capitalism. I was recently discussing with a friend
that I was going to move out of the US to live in Prague and she stated
"Gage, you can't move -- capitalism's your muse." So it goes.
Splendid: Any plans for a sequel dealing with SnarkŪ?
Brian Gage: Um. That's tough. I've never thought of doing a
Snark sequel. It would have to be genuine -- I'm not going to write a
sequel just for money. There would have to be a real social stance I'd be
exploring with the book, and I think A Corporate Fable has done its
job there. I consider the Web site to be the closest thing I'll ever do to a
sequel. But as Snark Inc. is a metaphor for corporate power, I'm sure
there are many other facets and stories in which it can exist. After all,
underneath each of those tombstones is another story to tell...
Splendid: Finally, what's the last windmill you tilted at?
Brian Gage: Sometimes I wonder if my entire life is just tilting
at a windmill... Long live Don Quixote!
-- Jenn Sikes would
marry Edward Gorey, but he's dead.
· · · · · · ·
About the Publisher:
Soft Skull Press, publisher of Snark Inc., is fearless, progressive,
Based in New York City's Lower East Side, Soft Skull publishes the history,
pop culture studies, art, poetry and fiction that fuel the vanguard.