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Book Review: The Enthusiast

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Book review: The Enthusiast
By Josh Fruhlinger
312 pages

If Jane Austen sat down to write a Philip K. Dick novel, the result might look a little like The Enthusiast, the new story from first-time novelist Josh Fruhlinger.

Fruhlinger is the creator of The Comics Curmudgeon, a daily blog devoted to funny critiques of newspaper comic strips. He has a special affection for soap opera “continuity” strips, so it’s no surprise that a soap opera strip called Ladies Who Lunch plays a key role in this book.

But Fruhlinger seems to have a little more on his mind than a novel-length extension of the musings from his blog. His heroine, Kate Berkowitz, lives in a modern-day world in which genuine free-range enthusiasm for things like comic strips or railroad trains is treated as a crop to be carefully tended and nurtured until it can be harvested for the benefit of interested corporations.

Kate is one of the farmhands doing the tending. She works for a company called the Subconscious Agency — part marketing team, part polling organization, part brand-building boutique. Call it a “secret agency.” Its employees observe enthusiasm online before proceeding to live-sites where they try to blend in with the actual wild enthusiasts, the better to nudge them in profitable directions.

This is all done with with a veneer of happy-speak and philosophical messaging from a Dear Leader — in this case, Christine Marver, the head of the Subconscious Agency. (The archetype of the charismatic and vaguely threatening leader is well used here.) Christine works in a top-floor star chamber above the agency and is given to maxims like “Objects and people and abstract concepts all exist within a cultural context,” or “Genuine enthusiasm is not totalizing and can accommodate criticism.”

The story opens with Kate arriving for a live-site with fans of commuter trains. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is due to buy a new set of rolling stock, and the Subconscious Agency has been hired by German giant Siemens to make sure theirs is the train chosen.

Trains make a certain logical sense as a companion enthusiasm for comic strips. Both had their heyday in the 1940s (in America, at least). Railways were indispensable then, moving millions of troops around in wartime. Trains like the 20th Century Limited were the luxe travel mode of choice, with fancy berths and linen-and-silver dining cars and Cary Grant hopping aboard for movie adventures with Eva Marie Saint.

Likewise, today’s comic strips can’t be separated from a sense of nostalgia for the golden age when cartoonists were superstars. The popularity of Little Orphan Annie made Harold Gray a multi-millionaire. Milton Caniff lived a glam life, hiring voluptuous live models to pose as he drew his sexy sidekicks and villains for Terry and the Pirates, read by 30 million people a day.

No wonder you had to carry those guys out feet-first. When they died at the drawing board, their oldest child (or assistant of 30 years) would grab the pen from their falling hand and keep drawing.

No more. First you had Bill Watterson quitting Calvin and Hobbes because he had said all he needed to say. Soon enough, Aaron McGruder was quitting The Boondocks because TV was more interesting or lucrative. Recently Patty and Terry LaBan, the husband-and-wife duo who draw the comic Edge City, announced that they were quitting with a blog post that amounted to barely more than a shrug:

“Edge City’s really not something we want do into our dotage… it’s depressing to work in a form that seems to have lost its relevance and is, for the most part, ignored.”

Ouch! With that kind of “enthusiasm” from creators, who can expect enthusiasm from readers? When railroad glamour has turned into a daily ride among mildewed carpeting and broken air conditioning, who can be a fan?

And yet, people persist in being enthusiasts about comics and trains and all kinds of things, even if it means inventing new and ironical one-step-removed forms of enthusiasm. Having spent the last decade at the intersection of genuine and ironical comics fandom, Fruhlinger clearly gets a big kick out of creating the fictional comic Ladies Who Lunch, nicknamed LaWL by its fans and seemingly modeled on the recently-defunct The Girls of Apartment 3-G. But he also seems to be pondering exactly what enthusiasm means in the 2010s.

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If you are the creator of the comic strip Mary Worth and I read your strip religiously, but only to make fun of it — what is my relationship to you? Am I a fan? Am I a critic? Are we connected at all? If I hate-read the strip every day, is that better or worse for you than if I like the strip but only read it once a week? If I long for the days of the 20th Century Limited, should I embrace Amtrak as my only alternative or reject it as a grotesque parody of how things used to be?

This sort of confusion isn’t limited to comics and railways. What does it mean to win a presidential election today? Do people vote for you based on a careful consideration of your policies and personality? Or do they vote for you as a symbolic gesture of rage, insecurity or wish fulfillment? Do they actually even vote for you at all, or do they “vote” for you in an online comments section or in an Iowa straw poll they’ve been paid to attend, because a campaign hopes this will build… enthusiasm?

What is the difference between the Subconscious Agency and, say, the Buzzfeed Viral Lab? Is a Kickstarter campaign for an indie band less “appropriate” if $5000 comes from a self-interested corporation instead of $5 each from 1000 truly enthusiastic donors? How about a presidential election? (The Enthusiast was itself made possible by $20,159 in Kickstarter donations from 734 enthusiastic backers.)

Fruhlinger is a keen observer of comic strip art, and those observational powers give him a good head start as a novelist. He has a vaguely Jane Austen-like interest in the minutiae of social life; Austen’s punchbowl at the regimental ball becomes today’s curly fries at Pickles Pub, the bland chain restaurant of The Enthusiast. Kate’s anxiety over her morning smartphone routine is as instantly recognizable to today’s reader as the social visitation protocols of Pride and Prejudice were to people of a certain class in Austen’s era.

The Subconscious Agency is a name that would be at home in any Philip K. Dick novel, and Kate is close kin to the coolhunters of William Gibson‘s 2003 book Pattern Recognition. But for all that, this is not really a “futuristic” novel. Coolhunter companies like Look-Look have come and gone while most of us weren’t even paying attention. Look-Look has morphed into The Collaboratory, a phildickian “invitation-only online network of brand enthusiasts who work hand-in-hand with brands during each stage of development of new products.”

It wouldn’t be surprising if Look-Look’s co-founder DeeDee Gordon was one of Fruhlinger’s inspirations for Christine Marver here. Gordon’s claim that “by allowing the consumer to be part of the development process, products will be created within a more meaningful and honest context” is a feel-good notion that Christine would be perfectly at home with.

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Author Josh Fruhlinger

The writing in The Enthusiast is as up-and-down as you might expect from a first-time novelist. At first I wasn’t sure who I was following and I cared little about Kate. The action was confusing, and the extreme attention to detail a little grating. I longed for a corpse or a crisis to give things a jolt of excitement and focus.

But the arrival of a jovial David Hasselhoff-like client for the Subconscious Agency does boost the energy, and Fruhlinger’s confidence seems to grow as the story goes on. He’s clearly writing what he knows: His enthusiasm for comic strip tropes and familiarity with the joys and horrors of online chat boards is clear.

Halfway through the book a mystery of sorts breaks out, and the scenes begin to take on a real life of their own. There’s a brief but colorful road trip to visit a cranky cartoonist in a retirement community in Palm Desert, where the clash between old-school enthusiasm and new-school enthusiasm comes to a head, and these are some of the most enjoyable scenes in the book.

Kate has a final confrontation that carries a real spark and feels, for a few sentences, genuinely triumphant. That’s real novelist stuff, and bodes well for the author’s future if he chooses to go for round two.

The final mystery is: Who is the Enthusiast of the novel’s title? It’s not clear. Perhaps it’s Fruhlinger himself.

More about The Enthusiast here.

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