Is there anyone left who still believes it's possible to overthrow capitalism? Any presidential candidate, whether Democrat or Republican, will eagerly explain how it's the most efficient system for satisfying human desire the world has ever known. Around the world, Communism is dead and Europe is creeping rightward. Outside of politics, artists have spent the past few decades becoming ever-better versed in markets and marketing, seeking to cash in on their role as the vanguard of the Warhol economy.
And then we have poet Mathias Svalina. His new work, I Am A Very Productive Entrepreneur, explores the system's broken promises that have nothing to do with social inequality or cultural degradation.
The book presents a series of case studies for fantasy enterprises, opening with a description of a "business that installed padlocks on clouds." Each vignette works like a little fairy tale, a fractured fable of the age of venture capital, replacing "Once upon a time" with "I started this one business that—." The speaker launches businesses that create stars, offer tours of Europe by ladies made of glass, and "open . . . up everything that is closed." These projects are funny, whimsical, and often heartbreaking: One business attempts to cheer the parents of dead children with a daily glass of sugar water, but fails because the technicians "could never make the sugar-water sweet enough."
While it's little more than a thick pamphlet, I Am A Very Productive Entrepreneur has a certain heft. With enchanting poeticism (and these highly formal, carefully constructed vignettes are nearly prose poems), Svalina explores the inability of commerce—and, by extension, our commercialized culture—to address deeper needs. As the book progresses, a hazy portrait emerges of a father in mourning for his young son, looking to capitalism's neat binaries for a solution to his grief, and consistently failing. "I used to love my son so much," concludes the write-up of one failed venture, "& now that he is dead I am not sure what it is that I love when I love him." What is left to want, buy or sell, when the only thing you need doesn't exist?
I Am A Very Productive Entrepreneur has a still and hard surface, like a plate-glass conference table before the meeting has begun. Prose poems, short shorts, whatever we call them, these pieces all take the form of case studies, and their straightforward tone reflects that. Indeed, anyone who has worked in business, consulting, or advertising will appreciate how closely Svalina's pieces hew to these industries' efficient and soulless conventions: Consumer desire, innovation, execution, lessons learned, results. But underneath this plastic-wrap sheen, Svalina's pieces are mad with lust and sorrow.
One business, which "retrofit[s] memories to include pilot lights," captures how Svalina uses absurdity to navigate to poignancy. "Thereafter the memories stay lit," he writes. "Even when you are away on vacation. Even when you are sleeping on the cold, dry marble. Even when your loved one has been dead for so long that the junk mail in his name has stopped arriving in the mailbox." The pitch seems willfully jokey, nearly Dadaist, until the end of the passage, where it becomes all too real, and ignites. Anyone who has lost a loved one is painfully aware of the feeling glibly called survivor's guilt, that wasteful indulgence of forgetting. I found myself thinking: "A pilot light for memories—there could be a market for that."
This little book is puzzling, mysterious, and important, especially now. As the presidential elections draw closer and the national conversation focuses increasingly on how our economy ought to work, it's unlikely we will hear a more intelligent, sensitive, or artful meditation about what we really expect from our economy, and why even in the best of times, it will always disappoint.
Sam Biederman lives in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in publications including n+1, Salon, and the Nation.