Sometimes an amalgamation of unpleasant elements can defy the odds and become a very pleasurable reading experience. Peter Mattei’s The Deep Whatsis has a rich, self-centered misogynist snob as its main character, delivers a narrative filtered through the male gaze, and promises a transformation that its conclusion fails to deliver. Despite those unlikable ingredients, reading the book is very satisfying experience. Matthei offers a sharp critique of the intrinsic ludicrousness of advertising culture and a hilarious deconstruction of haute New York society, exposing the emptiness behind a flashy lifestyle.
The Deep Whatsis follows Eric Nye, a ruthless Chief Idea Officer at a New York City ad agency whose job is firing employees. Eric is very good at what he does and earns three quarters of a million dollars a year doing it. He is perpetually bored. The plethora of prescription drugs he takes daily leaves him unenthusiastic about food and burdened with a perennially semitumescent penis. A quintessential hip metrosexual, Eric is a young professional who cares more about fancy coffee, parties, and bluefin tuna sushi than about the fates of the people whose careers he shatters. While he seems to have everything under control, Eric’s life changes after a one-night stand with a cute intern, whose name he can’t remember, turns into a crush. She looks “like a Photoshopped Chantal Goya,” but her attractiveness masks something much darker. Instead of disappearing like he expected her to, the intern stalks Eric and manages to get an internship at his agency. On their second drunken night together, she falls down and smashes her face. The following day, she tells people Eric’s responsible for her bruises. The accusation could cost Eric his job, but he’ll soon learn that the false allegation is only the start of a maelstrom of misunderstandings and psychological warfare that will force him to evaluate everything he stands for.
Eric Nye is the first thing about The Deep Whatsis that stands out. Nye is a monster, a Patrick Bateman-esque figure who ends careers instead of lives, a Frankenstein made from the worst parts of young, powerful, ambitious professionals in every cutthroat business in the world. He’s conceited, medicated, and severely detached from the real world, yet he ends up being the kind of narrator that forces readers to cheer for him. Nye describes himself as “a high priest in the state-mandated church of involuntary materialism,” and that offers a glimpse of his awareness of the role of advertising in society. In an interview he conducts with himself, Eric explains why it’s necessary to work hard at selling diapers that text mothers when they’re soiled:
Imagine if I were to say to our clients, “Dear men of Unabrand, does the world really need text-messaging diapers? Shouldn’t we be promoting better infant care instead of convincing mothers their natural instincts are inadequate?” Well, the agency would be fired within the hour and myself along with it. So we do nothing, in fact we cheer and trumpet these so-called innovations, which are in fact ruining us as human beings, and this is why I say the Tush, which others have dubbed Late Capitalism, is in fact a form of madness, a madness which will end in the slow, not even tragic mass suicide of the human race.
As a pill-popping, Sancerre-drinking tool, Eric enables Matthei to eviscerate everything from contemporary pop music and advertising to the role of technology in relationships and every branch of hipster culture that can be found in north Brooklyn. While poking fun at these things is not a new endeavor, Mattei does it with dazzling wittiness and a writing style that’s simultaneously hilarious and dark, razor-sharp and unexpectedly touching. By making Sabine, the intern, a threat, he exposes the fragile state of both modern employment and the psyche of overstressed young professionals. The narrative is sprinkled with prose that is both acidic and charming, poetic and appalling:
I sit in a deck chair and face away from the beach; something about the ceaseless idiocy of one wave after another strikes me as profoundly unimaginative.
Antiheroes refuse to go away, but they take on a wide variety of incarnations. Eric Nye is a new kind of antihero who is pregnant with the promise of change. As he deals with the increasing complications in his life, he realizes what being fired means to those who go through it. He thinks of ways to make amends, going as far as suggesting to his partner in crime, a Korean lady from Human Resources, that his bonus should be distributed among those he fired. Sadly, the ideas that could redeem him never become realities, and by the end of the novel the vicious cycle of corporate America destroys those hopes of redemption.
The Deep Whatsis is a novel about silly infatuation, drugs, and near-awakenings. It’s also an eloquent, punchy sendup of the advertising business and the culture that feeds it. Mattei has created a character reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman, Mark SaFranko’s Max Zajack, Ben Lerner’s Adam Gordon, and any of Tao Lin’s chemically dependent narrators. That Eric Nye’s voice is fresh and unique is a testament to Mattei’s talent, and the reason why fans of well-written satire should read this novel.