Clifford Meth has a vision. It’s a unique vision that’s an equal mix of social satire and intensity, of humor and drama. It’s a vision of our society as a world of pure absurdity, where emotions are eternal but the people feeling those emotions are thoroughly damaged by the world in which they’re forced to live.
Take the title story of this anthology. In “Billboards”, Meth imagines a world where America exists as a sort of third-world amusement park for the rich Asian countries. People live in the United States, but there is no industry in the country, or any sort of work, or really much of anything for people to do. Virtually the only way to get ahead is to sell one’s body.
However, Meth isn’t talking prostitution in this story. No, that would be both too obvious and not satirical enough. Meth is talking about something much odder and more interesting. The way people sell their bodies is by plastering themselves with tattoos that advertise products for corporate sponsors.
It’s a damn clever idea that works as satire on several levels. In some ways, the story is a commentary on the unceasing (and often pervasive) influence that corporate interests have in people’s everyday lives. It often seems impossible to escape advertising, and to have that advertising literally tattooed on peoples’ bodies is an eerie satire of how far a corporations might go in order to get its name everywhere.
The story also works as a satire of tattooing–a commentary on how, as the art of tattooing gets more and more popular, it also becomes a commercial institution. Tattooing itself is big business, Meth implies, and thus somehow has become sanctioned, welcomed, and ultimately co-opted.
If this story was just a satire, it would be interesting–but little else. However, Meth takes “Billboards” a bit further–giving it a bit of soul as it slowly evolves into the story of a young couple trying to escape the destinies that have been imposed on them.
The story starts as satire and ends up being a drama. I found myself contemplating the phildickian alienation of the couple. After they have asserted their individuality, they find themselves in neurotic alienation–lost in a world in which they have achieved their dream but have no idea how to proceed from there.
Preserving that element of humanity in the midst of an inhuman world is no small achievement, and it helps make the story memorable.
Meth also presents six other stories in this collection. While most of the rest are memorable, they’re also pretty much just vignettes rather than full stories. Thus, they’re interesting for the moment or two that it takes to read them, but they don’t offer the same merger of satire and passion that “Billboards” offers.
For instance, “The Other Woman” offers the potential for interest as a divorced man finds himself reunited with the woman with whom he had an affair. The story starts out in an interesting way, and the characters are entertaining–but there’s really no beginning or end to the story, just a middle.
“Wagging the CEO” is a cute piece about sucking up to the CEO by giving him a lot of shit (literally!)–but at two pages, it just breezes in and disappears in what seems like a heartbeat.
The second longest piece in this book is “Queer,” another social satire that looks at a world in which our social mores are turned upside down. The satire is cute, and there’s a wonderful twist ending, but the thinness of the characters and the weirdness of the satire keep this story from reaching the same transcendent levels as “Billboards.”
It’s clear from Meth’s stories that he’s a fighter. He is fighting with all his heart and soul to make sense of the world around him. It’s a world of inexplicable acts, bizarre social rules, and incomprehensible actions by those who have power. Most of all, Meth is all about damaged people just trying to get by–people who simply live their lives while trying valiantly to be themselves. There’s real heroism in that struggle.