Book Review. “Same Same” by Peter Mendelsund. Vintage Books, 2019.
It would take a daring and clever mind to convert the burning agony of a struggling, solitary writer into a provocative and amusing fantasy. Lucky for us, Peter Mendelsund has the goods. His novel, “Same Same,” is due out February 5.
Mendelsund’s protagonist, and perhaps his alter ego, Percy Frobisher, is an everyman who harbors the seeds of creativity and an urge to produce, perhaps to write. But life is a dullard’s ditch. A fellowship from ‘the Institute’ is dangled. He jumps. His existence becomes subsumed by the Institute and the expectation that he generate a creative project – any project. He can stay as long as he needs, can go in any direction. The Institute houses him, feeds him and assigns him a tea boy to help with his life’s labors, to free up his time.
The Institute is home to a cast of creatives that is flat-out weird – a hedonic psychometrician, a percussionist, moneymen who analyze derivatives of derivatives, a woman who covers herself in yarn. Is this art for art’s sake? Is it meaningful?
Institute life is centered in a remote biodome, a spiritual retreat with tidy rooms, sustenance, daily structure and first-class recreational facilities, on what feels like a different planet, one with a wavy horizon, where buildings shift on a landscape of unirrigated rust. Massive dunes, pushed by wind, threaten to erase reality. Palm trees cast tarantula shadows. Inside the dome is green, lush, quiet – a place where minds can be remade. Inside, says Percy, soon after arriving: “I cease to belong to myself. … I feel unburdened of my materiality, uncoupled from the ground. I can think here.”
Happiness and productivity lack drama. So, of course, Percy dries up, a raisin in the sun. He agonizes, prone on his floor, overcome by narcosis. The essence of his project eludes definition. Percy procrastinates, refuses even to label his project. He imagines the atmosphere of a small town after a massacre. He might be dying inside.
Somehow, he manages to keep a damn fine journal; our view of the Institute is entirely through his eyes. His years there are shaped by the forces around him. The glass biodome, its condition, its effects and its place in his world – are in constant question. An Institute disciplinarian and handler, Miss Fairfax, embraces and spreads the gospel of things conventional: seminars offering tips and tricks, encouragement couched in Institute lingo. Percy befriends the resident cynic, a man for whom nothing matters. The Institute’s historian-guru offers words of wisdom – or are they the meaningless words of an idiot? Percy’s head keeps jerking in the direction of a Mysterious Woman who wanders into view, then disappears into ambiguity.
In real life (“Irl,” Percy calls it), far outside of the biodome, in a town, is this novel’s namesake, the Same Same, a little shop. People go in with problems. They come out with solutions. Take in any item – stained, broken, incomplete – and it comes out better than new. The shop is an attractive resource, one the Institute declares taboo. The shop bears an uncanny resemblance to our reality and, sometimes, the things it turns out are imperfect, perhaps excessive. The shop might be a stand-in for beta readers, editors or crowd-sourced opinions on a writer’s early drafts, on the betterment that comes from receiving critical, outside analysis. It might represent the events that compose life, the essential moments from decades of experience that bring self-knowledge or wisdom, tens of thousands of days being sifted for bits that tell a story. The shop might represent the individual, having been improved by investing himself in creation. Or, it could have been contrived just so some writer could use it as the title of his book. Really, who’s to say?
Mendelsund’s tight tale might be called, Parable of the Novelist. Percy’s state of mind and the toll it takes are both known to many writers who work long daily hours, years on end. It is the insulated foil hat, the madman’s enclosure, that molds itself to your head when you want to craft the one thousand words that are your daily goal. It is the thing that makes you ignore loved ones pleading for attention, makes you tune out Irl.
Inside the foil hat is an oasis for one, a green place in life’s desert, divine loneliness. Unlike, say, musicians who can write and rehearse in groups, the writer usually runs solo, his life nearly empty of commiseration and team spirit. Every foil hat is distinct, can’t be duplicated – like a fingerprint or like the bacteria in a gut. Percy’s descriptions of the inside his foil hat – a state of ennui, tangled and blue – glow like burning coal. “Boredom,” he says, “is the exemplary state for fomenting a hyperawareness of time.”
Mr. Mendelsund’s background is evident in the text of Same Same. He was associate art director with Alfred A. Knopf and has doubtless inhaled a vast variety of books, allowed himself to be affected by them in order to conceive and generate appealing cover art. Percy’s journal, for example, calls on vocabulary plucked from hither and yon: Jewish mythology, taxonomy, Far East cosmetics, gardening, efficient text messaging, biology, modern dance, anatomy. I didn’t mind that I had to read this book with a dictionary in hand. With every exotic word, Percy became that much more mysterious.
Mendelsund’s extensive analysis of books and his interaction with authors and book editors have left him able to turn out elegant prose. The man knows what readers like. He is a living example of what extensive reading can do for a writer. The narrative is absorbing, insightful and compelling. It is the evocative story of man in search of meaning, a classic arrangement of life’s elements. And it is paced like a once-in-a-lifetime vacation to a foreign land: The flavors, smells and sights are many, as are opportunities for reflection, and you are left richer, more peaceful.
This book could only have been written by one who’s explored their foil hat, who’s withdrawn from life in pursuit of work that might end up being meaningful to no one but himself. No doubt, Mendelsund has worked closely with many authors who’ve done the same. He knows how the foil hat can be an imagined paradise, how it might lead one to lift his head and to discover, in shock, that he’s wandered, alone and without water, into an empty desert. Mendelsund has a message for those who’ve worn the foil hat, who have dared down the path that might lead to creation of something that pleases no one else: Congratulations. You have arrived.