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Deconstructing the Tube

[whitespace] book cover Stories From the Tube: Sharpe's surreal take on commodity fetishism.

Matthew Sharpe looks for inspiration in advertising

By Sarah Coleman

As a child growing up in westchester during the Vietnam War era, Matthew Sharpe had the distinct impression that it wasn't only the television news and its daily body count that were "being brought to him" by Coca-Cola: the war itself was too. "My sense was that there was always a war on; that news was war, and commercials were war, and vice versa," he says. "And you know, I'm not sure that my 7-year-old's perception was so far off the mark."

With a pronouncement like that, it seems fitting that Sharpe has grown up to be the author of Stories From the Tube (Villard; 224 pages; $22), an offbeat collection of short stories inspired by television commercials. In these 10 stories, Sharpe dives into what he sees as the sinister subtext beneath commercials, coming up with narratives that would raise the hairs on any self-respecting ad executive's neck.

Odd and fascinating, the stories strip away the perky, all's-right-with-the-world façade of commercials and tease out their subliminal messages. In "Tide," a single mother finds a wet, red stain on her daughter's ballet tutu and vainly tries to teach the tomboy girl a lesson about puberty--with graphic consequences. In "Doctor Mom," a woman whose medical license has been suspended practices illegally from her home, performing a series of increasingly invasive procedures on her 10-year-old son.

Though each story is prefaced with a quotation from the ad on which it's based, Sharpe departs in ingenious ways from his source material. "I didn't want to do straight satire of the ads, because I felt that Saturday Night Live and people like that handle the satirical aspects really well," he says over the phone from his home in New York. "The challenge was to write about private life in such a way that it had some resonance with public life--and a nice way to do that was to write stories based on commercials, which are public perceptions of private life."

For a writer, Sharpe is refreshingly honest about his addiction to television. "I'm a guy with a graduate degree in writing who is watching NYPD Blue when I should be reading Moby-Dick," he says. "One of the reasons for writing this was to resolve the tension I felt about watching too much TV. Because let's face it, after a long day at work, who wants to dig into a book on cetology when you can sit down with Sipowicz and Bobby Simone?"

Or for that matter, with ads, which Sharpe regards as being "crammed with visual and aural information, full of semiotic richness." His ambition was to create stories that "pack a similar wallop," and he succeeds--notably in the coruscating story that ends the collection, "A Bird Accident."

Based on a luxury-car commercial in which the car's performance is likened to that of Charlie "Bird" Parker ("The great performers are always creating a higher standard"), the story envisages a scenario in which the great jazz musicians are being run over in luxury cars by advertising executives, again and again. It's a bleak commentary on how something sacred--in this case, jazz--gets appropriated and cheapened by advertising.

So it comes as a surprise to learn that Sharpe himself is no stranger to the commercial imperative. While an undergraduate at Oberlin College, he spent a memorable summer in the Bay Area selling lobsters and steaks door-to-door--arriving at people's houses with a glued-on smile and the line "Does anyone here like seafood?"

The job quickly descended into moral chaos. "There was one salesman who'd pretend he already had a sale in the neighborhood, which would make people trust him more," he recalls. "I tried that once or twice before realizing that no, you can't do that, you're lying to these people!" He pauses, then adds, "After that, my sales technique became much more limited."

He subsequently attended the MFA Writing Program at Columbia University (where he and I studied in a workshop together) and began to make a connection between the fantasy elements in his work and the real-life events that inspired them. "When I started writing fiction, I did it more as an escape from reality," he says. "But the older I get, the more I write as a way to be connected to the world. Columbia speeded up that process for me."

For sheer quirkiness, though, Sharpe's earliest role model was his mother, a folksinger and composer whose song "Charlie on the MTA" was made famous by the Kingston Trio. The song was written as a campaign ballad for a Boston mayoral candidate and tells the story of a family man who's doomed to ride the Boston subway indefinitely because he can't afford the additional fare he needs to disembark ("Did he ever return?/No he never returned/And his fate is still unlearned").

"I certainly owe my Mom a debt when it comes to being both amused and creeped out by TV ads," says Sharpe, who currently supports his writing habit by teaching through the nonprofit Teachers and Writers Collaborative. But he also owes a debt to TV itself. So how damaging does he think commercials really are?

"I think what we learn from them is a false picture of the world, one that's based on the commodification of everyday life," he says. "A lot of them have dreamlike ways of making meaning, which is great until you see the dark, suggestive themes that get woven in." Take the ad for White Cloud toilet paper, in which a fluffy cloud sits next to a woman on an airplane. In Sharpe's version, the cloud-man and the woman begin a liaison that becomes destructively obsessive. With its challenging notions of erotic attraction, the story is nothing if not unsettling.

"Yeah, it creeps me out that I wrote some of those stories," Sharpe says, laughing. "I was discovering something that I felt through writing--which was odd but pretty exciting."

At the moment, he has left his perch by the tube to write a novel following an orphan's life and adventures, but it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect more musings on pop culture from him. "Like most people, I'm somewhat dismayed by things that I see in the culture," he says. "Luckily, fiction offers a pretty good venue for expressing that dismay."

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From the February 1, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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