From Iceland — Andri Snær Magnason: The First Capitalist-Realist Poet?

Andri Snær Magnason: The First Capitalist-Realist Poet?

Published November 5, 2012

Andri Snær Magnason: The First Capitalist-Realist Poet?

For a wily writer who has always known his market, Andri Snær Magnason is late again. Three weeks have passed since his publisher’s deadline for the manuscript of his next novel—a story about a king who has conquered the world but now wants to control time too—and Andri has decided to overhaul the structure and write a new ending. Next month, his epic dystopian allegory ‘LoveStar’ is at long last to be published in English—a full ten years after it was first released to rave reviews from Icelandic readers.
Years too late, his many followers might say. From the pen of a man whose early poetry was once published by Bónus supermarket founder Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, ‘LoveStar’ is the story of an enigmatic and obsessive corporate plutocrat who now has a dream to control how human beings think and communicate, all for the profit of his business.
Your writing career began when you were still studying at university in the early ‘90s. How did you make your name as such a young writer?

I published my own poetry, and I sold that to support myself through university rather than taking out student loans. I was like a drug dealer. My first book of poetry was well-received, so that helped spread word of mouth. My family was also helpful; they worked at hospitals with big groups of friends and they all bought copies. I would go to the cafes, walk up to each table and ask, ‘Do you want to buy a poetry book for 1,000 krónur?’ That was only about one per cent of the monthly wages of a high-school teacher, so lots of people bought it.
That must have been good practice for selling your Bónus poetry collection?
That came out in 1996—it was actually published by the supermarket chain Bónus. I made a deal with the notorious boss Jón Ásgeir himself when he had about three people in his office running a handful of stores in Reykjavík. Ten years later he had 40,000 employees, the most expensive apartment in New York, a private jet and a super-yacht. So I suppose I ought to take some of the responsibility for what happened in Iceland leading up to the crash! Mr Bónus really liked the cover, but I’m not sure if he read the whole book. It was on sale in the supermarkets—and you got a free copy if you bought something like 50 kilos of pork.
Does that make you a sort of capitalist poet?
For me it was an ironic statement—a literary prank. Every ideology comes with poetry: communism has socialist realism; the church has psalms and songs. Why doesn’t capitalism have poetry? Why are there no poets writing about economic growth and buying products? I saw it as perhaps the first in the genre of capitalist realism, giving confidence to the consumer, praising the products and enhancing loyalty to the store.

Didn’t you feel like you were selling out?

Every idol that I had, all the big names like Britney Spears and David Beckham, they were selling themselves to Pepsi and Coke and the big brands. My childhood role models were on my wall as advertisements, trying to sell me something. I thought this was the most vulgar thing you could do to poetry. But even then I wanted there to be social awareness in my writing: I’d always approached my big themes as allegories until I finally addressed the issues Iceland was facing in ‘Dreamland.’
Yes, ‘Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual For A Frightened Nation.’ You released that in 2006 at the height of the boom years. Did the country listen to what you said?
‘Dreamland’ was primarily about the great destruction of the Icelandic environment and natural landscape. I was only part of a big grassroots movement—there were many people putting all their spare time and more into stopping this. We raised awareness and prevented exploitation in parts of the country, which energy companies thought they had the right to plunder with heavy machinery. I think there is less arrogance in the energy industry these days, but still it takes a very courageous politician to stop someone who’s out to make money.
‘LoveStar’  is coming out in English this November, but it was published in Icelandic ten years ago, four years before ‘Dreamland.’ Do they have much in common?
I think it asks similar questions about what philosophical ground you stand on. LoveStar is the boss of a company—and it’s the name of his company. He is a serial entrepreneur. He has an ego that I can see in myself and other writers, as he becomes consumed by his own ideas. He has a very weak immune system, so he’s almost body-snatched by them. He wants more and more, like an engineer who wants to dam every single river or tap oil everywhere just because he can. This is a world where everything is taken to the full extreme.
LoveStar is always infected by an idea, and without one he’s an empty shell—like a writer with writer’s block, without any use for his existence. Characters like these mess up everything around them, every relationship, their family, their life. When I read Steve Jobs’ biography, I thought he was like this character I was creating—even on his death-bed he was talking about the next iPhone! Steve Jobs though only revolutionised music, communication and film; LoveStar revolutionises love, death and god.
So the destructive power of technology is a key theme. But surely technology also brings us together—not to mention helping you sell your books?

I was exploring the possibility of technology becoming a regime. Every ideology, whether through a church or a political rally, can bring people together. LoveStar develops a regime where almost every single interaction has some kind of incentive or reward. People belong in different classes, so the poorest are ‘howlers’ and only have commercials attached to their speech drives to say basic things like ‘Good Coke, Good Coke, Good Coke.’ The wealthier have more sophisticated drives which help them work out what will appeal to you which in turn helps build their rating.
Is this becoming reality?
This was written before the days of Facebook and Twitter. Now we live in a world of likes. There’s now even something called Klout, which gives you a score based on your social networking influence. In the book, individuals have ratings like that, so I suppose I could be bold and say I invented Klout.
I’ve started using Twitter because I had to promote my book. I’ve found myself tweeting self-congratulatory things about the book, seeking out retweets and Facebook likes. I started following Neil Gaiman, and wondered how he can write anymore—he’s tweeting every thirty seconds! I wondered where the potential to map and track all our interactions was going. The ability to map our movements and check in to locations is growing fast. If I can check in and tag you to say I’ve just recommended you buy this Philips phone and you then go off and do that, the store could give me a cut rather than having someone in the store to sell their phones. That’s the world of LoveStar.
How do people’s reactions now compare to those when it was first released?
When it came out in 2002 it was called a dystopian novel; now it’s being called a parody. We seem to have already reached that dystopia. It got a lot of great reviews back then, but I’ve always had interesting responses. I’ve had teenage boys calling me, telling me they’ve never read a book before this but were blown away—and then they ask, “What drugs were you taking?”

 by Andri Snær Magnason

The cordless modern world had as little as possible to do with cords and cables — not that they were called cords or cables anymore. They were known as chains, and gadgets were known as weights or burdens. People looked at the chains and burdens of the past and thanked their lucky stars. In the old days, people said, we were wire-slaves chained to the office chair, far from birdsong and sunshine. But things had changed. When men in suits talked to themselves out in the street and reeled off figures, no one took them for lunatics: they were probably doing business with some unseen client. The man who sat in rapt concentration on a riverbank might be an engineer designing a bridge. When a sunbathing woman piped up out of the blue that she wanted to buy a two-ton cod quota, bystanders wouldn’t automatically assume this was addressed to them, and when a teenager made strange humming noises on the bus, nodding his head to and   fro, he was probably listening to an invisible radio. The man who breathed rapidly or got an erection at an inappropriate time and place probably had his visual nerve connected to some hard-core material or was listening to a sex line. (There was no limit to the filth that flooded through the connected minds of some people, but of course it was impossible to ban them from filling their heads with obscenity and violence. You might as well ban thinking.) If someone stood beside you and asked: “What time is it?” and you answered right away: “It’s half past nine,” the person would respond, even though there was no one else in sight: “Thanks, but I wasn’t talking to you.”
Indridi Haraldsson was a cordless modern man, so the average person could not tell if he was going mad or not. When he spoke to himself in public there might be someone on the other end of the line. When he laughed and laughed it might be for the same reason, or he might be listening to a comedy station, or he could have a funny video playing on the lens. In fact it was impossible to tell what was going on in his head but there was no reason why it should be anything abnormal.
If he ran down the street shouting: “The end of the world is here! The end of the world is here!” most people assumed he was taking part in a radio station competition for a prize of free hamburgers. When he rode naked up and down the shopping center escalator seven times in a row people assumed something similar. It was difficult to tell what prize he was competing for because he was naked and people could only guess his target group from his hairstyle, age, and physical build. Indridi was   twenty-one, thin, and pale-skinned, with fair, dishevelled hair, so he was definitely not the target audience of a radio station that advertised bodybuilding, sports cars, highlights, and solariums. He had no tattoos or piercings, so he wasn’t the target of the station that played rock and punk and advertised raw beer, unfiltered moonshine, and high tar cigarettes. He was naked and unkempt and definitely didn’t belong to any of the more sober target groups. Maybe he was a performance artist. Artists were always busy performing. Perhaps the escalator scene was worth three points on the College of Art’s performance art course. Or he could, of course, be in an isolated minority target group. There were plenty of them around, but generally an attempt was made to direct people into a popular area where they could be reached more economically.
If Indridi suddenly barked at someone: “IIIIICE -COLD CO KE! IIICCCCCE -COLD CO KE!!!” for ten seconds without his eyes or body seeming to match his words, the reason for this behaviour was simple: the advertisements being transmitted to him were directly connected to his speech center. People assumed he must be an ad howler. He was probably broke enough to fall outside most target groups, so it wasn’t worth sending him personal advertisements. But it was possible to send ads through him to others by using his mouth as a loudspeaker. Those who walked past howlers could expect an announcement like:
This was more effective than conventional reminders on ad hoardings or the radio. So when Indridi met a man on his way to the parking lot, he howled:
The man had been arrested for speeding without a seat belt. As a punishment he was made to listen to and pay for two thousand edifying reminders from ad howlers. That was probably the best thing about the new technology. It could be used to improve society.
“LOVE THY NEIGHBOR !” howled a shady-looking man at half-hourly intervals. A rehabilitated murderer, people would correctly assume, giving him a wide berth. Prisoners could be released early if they howled for charities or religious groups.
Howlers were not all broke. Many were simply scrounging for discounts or perks, and some only became howlers for the first three months of the year while they paid for the latest upgrade of the cordless operating system. Those who didn’t get their system upgraded could have problems with their business or communication. Cordless home appliances and auto door-openers only recognized the latest system, and the same applied to the latest car models, so they wouldn’t automatically slow down if someone with the old system crossed the road.

This is just part of chapter one. Read the rest after it comes out on November 13! LoveStar will be published in the United States by Seven Stories Press.

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