© 1999 Max(x) Barry
I’ve been enjoying Max Barry these past few weeks. His funny novels set in corporate America — sometimes exploring speculative scenarios — have not yet failed to disappoint, and Syrup was another en joyable read. This one has been described as a “cult classic” and is currently being made into a film. The book has a lightening pace: unlike his other books and unlike most books (including thrillers), Syrup’s lead characters enjoy very little downtime. Main character “Scat” — who has given himself a new name appropriate for pursuing a career in marketing –begins the novel with a million-dollar idea: a soda with the brand name of Fukk. After gushing about the idea to his roommate Sneaky Pete (who, we are told, you should never ask “Why are you called Sneaky Pete?), he runs off to the Coca-Cola company to meet Pete’s friend 6. After hearing 6’s name, Scat believes he has found a kindred soul, and despite her claims that she is not interested in men, he falls in love with her while attempting to sell the idea.
The idea is a sensation: the Coca-Cola company loves it. Everyone knows that the soda with an eyebrow-raising name sold in a black can will be the hit of the summer — including Sneaky Pete, who trademarks the name while Scat is ignoring 6’s claims that she prefers women. Oops. Scat was almost worth $3 million, but he is just an idea man — he fails when putting ideas into action. After he returns to his home to yell at his roommate Sneaky Pete (and to leave after realizing that Pete owns the lease and can’t be kicked out), he is approached by 6. Sneaky Pete is Coca-Cola’s new golden boy, and he’s after her job: 6 wants Scat’s help. Thus begins the plot-driving conflict, which unfolds over a period of several months (the interludes are never mentioned) while Scat and 6 frantically fight to keep their new positions at Coca-Cola against Sneaky Pete’s attempts to undermine them and take credit for his ideas — culminating in their attempting to film a movie that will serve as a feature-length advertisement for Coca-Cola. The conflict is not resolved until the book’s final pages, keeping readers’ eyes firmly on the page.
Syrup is not only a funny thriller, but an interesting peek into the world of marketing. Barry confirms what a professor of mine — who worked in marketing until making the switch to geography — said about the profession, that it was “organized lying”. According to the book’s “About the Author”, Barry worked in marketing before beginning work on his novels. He sprinkles marketing “tips” into the story, like “You don’t have to claim a product is healthy: just insinuate it.” and “Spread the most popular items throughout the grocery store so customers pass by as large a range of goods as possible. Shift the location of goods regularly to keep customers wandering.” Barry also has Scat talk about the marketing business, where “perception is reality”. I suspect that most people reading a book like Syrup are already familiar with the fact that advertisers use every gimmick they can to sell an item, but how far they will go is still surprising.
This is a definite recommendation if you want a fun read that focuses on story and not so much on giving the reader gratuitous anything — except for snarkiness.