Cover image for Same same : a novel / Peter Mendelsund.
Title:
Same same : a novel / Peter Mendelsund.
ISBN:
9780525435884
Publication Information:
New York : Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, [2019]

©2019
Physical Description:
483 pages ; 21 cm
General Note:
"A Vintage Books original."--Title page verso.
Abstract:
The fiction debut from the LA Times bestselling author of What We See When We Read-- a novel of ideas set in a mysterious institute in the desert. In the shifting desert sands on the outskirts of a Middle Eastern city sits a mysterious Institute, where Fellows in every field of knowledge and endeavor under the (inhospitably hot) sun work on Projects and give Discourses(TM) and dedicate themselves to copying, cloning, replicating, and reproducing a world to which none of them seem to have any intention of returning. Same Same is Percy Frobisher's account of his tenure as a Fellow at the Institute, and his attempt to realize--or is it simulate?--his own audacious Project. Imagining a world in which simulacra have as much value as the real--so much so that any distinction between the two vanishes, and even language seeks to reproduce meaning through ever more degraded copies of itself--Peter Mendelsund has crafted a deeply unsettling novel about what it means to exist, and to create . . . and a future that may not be far off.
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Summary

Summary

In the shifting sands of the desert, near an unnamed metropolis, there is an institute where various fellows come to undertake projects of great significance. But when our sort-of hero, Percy Frobisher, arrives, surrounded by the simulated environment of the glass-enclosed dome of the Institute, his mind goes completely blank. When he spills something on his uniform--a major faux pas--he learns about a mysterious shop where you can take something, utter the command "same same," and receive a replica even better than the original. Imagining a world in which simulacra have as much value as the real--so much so that any distinction between the two vanishes, and even language seeks to reproduce meaning through ever more degraded copies of itself--Peter Mendelsund has crafted a deeply unsettling novel about what it means to exist and to create . . . and a future that may not be far off.


Author Notes

Peter Mendelsund is a designer and writer. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two daughters.


Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

In Mendelsund's comically disturbing debut, writer Percy Frobisher, a brilliant thinker but an unreliable narrator, travels to a technologically advanced, unnamed institute in the desert to complete a project, the specifics of which are unclear even to him. Percy flounders in his work, instead focusing his energy on observing the institute's other fellows (including Miss Chatterton the Mysterious Woman, The-Man-Who-Assiduously-Tracks-His-Own-Life-Data, and a woman whose name consists of a smiley-face character), dodging the administrators attempting to keep him on task, going on benders, and sneaking into town to the mysterious Same Same shop, which seems to be able to perfectly replicate any item. As a constant, bizarre storm of paper sends pages flying everywhere and the utopian facade of the institute begins to crack, Percy sets out to test the limits of the Same Same technology and of his own creative practice. Slow to start, occasionally self-indulgent, but ultimately rewarding, this novel is absurdist, uncanny metafiction about the nature of identity, individuality, and authorship in an era of rapid technological advancement. Agent: Chris Parris-Lamb, Gernert Co. (Feb.) c Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


New York Review of Books Review

THE RENOWNED GRAPHIC DESIGNER Peter Mendelsund's first novel manages to be breezy and profound in equal measure. That balance is - as the programmers say - a feature and not a bug, and it turns this homage to Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain" into a clever metafictional sendup of artists' retreats and tech-industry think tanks. In a Middle Eastern desert, a local oligarch "or sheikh or some such" has funded the creation of a settlement known as the Freehold, an oasis of "ruins, malls, mines, camel rides, men and their retainers - in thobes, dishdashas, their heads banded by black agals - hunting with peregrines, Range Rovers out in the sands. (You get the picture.)" It's also home to an international establishment known as the Institute, which offers fellowships to thought leaders in various disciplines. Among the current residents are the Brand Analyst, the Poet and a performance artist known as the Woman-Whose-Face-and-HandsAre-Covered-in-Yarn. Percy Frobisher has just arrived, intent on dedicating himself to a project of his own, the nature of which is left unspecified for most of "Same Same." The indelible ink stain he gets on the front of his required uniform causes a great deal of embarrassment and he makes slow progress on his project, which he notates as a series of absurd "fundaments" like "The project shall have a narrative component. Narrative is the key ingredient in all my work, as well as in all work like mine. Perhaps narrative is the key ingredient in all human endeavor. Idk." His procrastination techniques include taking drugs in an abandoned hotel, ogling another fellow known as the Mysterious Woman and sneaking out of the Institute to visit the enigmatic Same Same shop. The novel's title derives from the shopkeeper's ability to replicate and even improve any item Frobisher brings in. Our fellow gets his uniform cleaned and other items repaired (or possibly replaced) and can't figure out how. Perhaps the shopkeeper "could have amassed a huge amount of junk back there, storage bins from which he plucks (I want to say: one of everything? Four of everything? Wtf). Or there's a really high-end 3-D printer. A Xerox; a milling machine; laser lathe, sewing machine; a staff of... how many?" Questions about creation and reproduction - mechanical, digital and otherwise - form a recurring theme. Frobisher's troubles are compounded by a run-in with the Institute's menacing director, whose tech-jargon Newspeak monologue about the fellows' responsibilities serves as a master class on subtext accomplished in a CAPS HEAVY rant that uses a lot of fancy words to say absolutely nothing. "Of course it will - no one, no fellow - while en-laddered here at the Institute - will be allowed to shirk hard work. But, more important, it will require your complete buy-in. FULL bandwidth. Every aspect of the process running in concert with the seamless integration of your talent/application stack within the Institute's own, every layer contributing." It's one of the most perfectly tuned passages of fiction I've read in a very long time. The deteriorating environmental conditions of the Institute and an approaching desert storm ratchet up the tension even further. In inviting a comparison to Mann's masterpiece, Mendelsund has set a difficult task for himself. Percy Frobisher is no Hans Castorp; nor, it must be said, is he meant to be. "Same Same" reaches literary heights of its own, even if it occasionally punches down at some easy targets. In using nonsensical jargon to expose the hollow core of the global Big Ideas industry, Mendelsund has produced - or perhaps reproduced - something entirely satisfying. "Same Same" is a substantial book about emptiness. It reminds us that there's no here here unless we create it ourselves. ANDREW ervin is the author of the novel "Burning Down George Orwell's House" and the novella collection "Extraordinary Renditions."


Excerpts

Excerpts

1 I was unaware, at first, that I had entered the Institute. Sure, the dome appeared, briefly, far off in the desert. A bright semicircle, a second sun, perched upon the wavy horizon. I thought it was a business park or the reflective apron of one of the Freehold's honeycombed luxury developments. A stadium? One of those steroidal mega-mosques one reads about in the literature, perhaps. Something. It drifted along for a spell, during that endless drive out, along the rightmost edge of my vision, no matter how many times the car merged onto new roads. I could see it even through the double tint of my sunglasses and the vehicle's windows. The dome, known only as a flare. Other than that, there were the dunes of course--dune by dune--stuccoed to the sky behind. And these gray superhighways, colonized by sand along their shoulders, giving them lightly ragged edges like monumental pencil marks. But nothing else, really. Besides that distant dome. Which was there. Until it wasn't. It vanished. Could it have been a mirage--a trick of the light? Idk. But: no. No, I can see it again. Oh, I see the dome, all right. Only I see it, now, from the inside; from underneath, I mean. I didn't notice a security checkpoint, so it will have been unmanned. There were no barriers to raise or lower; no fanfare, no ceremony. I was in the desert, outside of the Institute, and now I am within it. And the Institute is all about me. This uncanny oasis in the middle of a scorch-plain. And atop it all, the great upturned bowl of its metastructure. The desert--and with it, my old life--now gone. Poof. And so the car hums along, through this entirely new, artificial ecosystem, past the tall palms which line both sides of the straight, clean avenue, casting their tarantula shadows. Off to the sides, parklands, lawns, copses, nature trails, etc. (How many gardeners must be employed here? No sign of them, though; nor of any of the Institute fellows.) The stubble of a few communications spars; small electrical substations; glints from far-off solar panels amid the greenery; what looks like a desalination unit; and now an enormous, brightly blue, artificial lake. Farther off, the buildings themselves. The campus. The car scrunches onto an access road, and I can see that I am approaching an immense set of concrete-and-glass slabs--one of the first Western-style constructions in the Freehold, and the work of an influential architectural collective. The car slows, then stops in the building's shadow, and I debark. Mine is the only vehicle in the lot, and I have that persistent, unsettling feeling of being marooned in a city of one. The quiet air of a town after a massacre. I wonder where all the other Institute fellows are, but remember the time of day, and recall that at this hour they all must be hard at work on their projects, at their workstations, and in their studios, their laboratories, so on. Exhilarating to imagine--to imagine that I might belong to their number. Also exhilarating to discover that it is wonderfully cool out, under the dome. The work of the metastructure's air circulators. I stretch limbs, breathe in deeply, which reaps the strangest, almost autumnally crisp air. Air with a unique but unlocatable aftertaste--something citric, and rubbing alcohol. A chemical terroir. Exhale. Craning, I still can't see a soul. I reach for my device again, whisper it awake, and it produces a sigh, and begins to faintly pulse. Pull up a map, pinch outward, fix Miss Fairfax's position inside. And so I follow an animated arrow guiding me toward the building's main doors, which obligingly swish open, and then I enter, meander through a maze of empty hallways, branching like bronchioles in a lung, past the empty lounge areas, the empty galleries, until I arrive in a bright atrium--a hangar, really--easily hundreds of meters across and just as high, housing the Landau-Schmidt glacier. Maybe it's just a replica. The website claims it's the real McCoy. Though the language is ambiguous, as in, "from the original." Either way, a large thing of any kind is always an event of sorts. I knew there would be such sites out here: enclosed ski slopes, so on. But still. Wow. Just look at it. I snap a pic: caption, post. Needless to say, as with everywhere else in the Institute, no one other than me is here to see the glacier--to climb, ski, or otherwise experience it. So there's more of the suthering silences of large, empty spaces. A viewing platform. The escalator takes me up; the high platform descends into view, arrives beneath my feet. Modular tables and sleek, rounded chairs, a bar. Lots of white leather and orange plastic. It's all--the decor, the signage, the softly chirping music even--retro-futurism. This is what once passed as modern, bleeding edge, and now, curated thus, it is pure kitsch. Or maybe it's nostalgia. Nostalgia for another future. I'm enjoying it. After all: What is nostalgia without kitsch? Just plain old memory. My new admin, Miss Fairfax, sits at a small table, looking just like the online versions of her. Same face (round), same hair (dark), same glasses (thick). I now realize that she reminds me, in a pleasant way, of other women I've known. A type of woman who wears glasses. I want to say that she is a specimen of this particular type. Even Irl, with its fuller, richer aspect. In any case I find her conformity to type oddly comforting. Next to her is a man I don't know. His type: louche, and jaded. Very pale. Hair shaved along the sides, but flopping down in front along his forehead. His eyes are deep-set, feline, feminine, almost kohled. He wears a smart-looking tunic. Miss Fairfax wears one as well, albeit a different color. Odd, this--yet they both look so chic--especially in this setting, with the piped upholstery and softly lambent overheads. My jacket is shiny at the lapels and elbows, and creased just about everywhere and obviously quite the wrong color for the climate. The sole of my left oxford is detaching itself in just one more emblem of my general dishevelment. I am wearing this rumpled clothing in direct contravention of my normal manner of dressing, which is kempt and orderly. I always say that "we are how we dress," or "the clothes make the man," or use some other kind of formulation in which a person is equated directly with his clothing, and so I feel that I am being misrepresented ("the rumpled type"; worn, déclassé). And as I stand here thinking these uneasy thoughts, suddenly, like a spooked herd, Miss Fairfax and her companion look up, simultaneously--the admin doing so over her glasses, slipping as they are along the bridge of her nose. She waves and smiles. The pale man does not. He seems unimpressed. I approach. She rises. The pale man remains seated. I put out a hand, which everyone ignores. Miss Fairfax steps back to take me in and assess my extent, sliding those glasses up her nose with a practiced forefinger: "Hello, Percy. Welcome to--" The pale man interjects. "Welcome to nowhere." His name is Dennis Royal. A moneyman, pursuing his work at the Institute's Business Center. "Derivatives. Derivatives of derivatives, actually. Topological models of markets. Mining data sets. Dull stuff, honestly. The gist is making money. Heaps of it." He bends over a cigarette, half-mast between his lips, in order to light it. Miss Fairfax taps him, and shakes her head, and he shrugs, lets it fall theatrically from his mouth into a hand, and slips it back into his tunic pocket. "What's your bag, Mr. Frobisher?" "I prefer not to discuss it, at least not while the work is in progress." "Everyone talks about their projects here. It is, in some sense, the raison d'etre of the entire endeavor." "Ah, well, I prefer to travel under the radar. And my project will only take a few weeks to finish. I'll be gone before anyone knows I'm here." Mr. Royal chuckles. "You're skeptical?" "Weeks? They are nothing out here. Months are like days." He pulls the cigarette out again, remembers, and returns it, clicking his tongue in self-admonishment. "No, no," I maintain, "in and out." "Seasons like weeks, years like months . . ." "Best to think hopeful thoughts, surely, Mr. Royal?" "Think whatever you like, I'm merely giving you the lay of the land. The Institute has a way of encouraging one to . . . linger." "Some of us haven't the luxury of so much time." "But, of course you have," he insists, glint in his eye. Miss Fairfax finally steps in: "You will see, Percy. It all seems strange at first, but, when the coin drops, it can feel like an awakening. Anyway, Dennis, don't be so gloomy. We must all play our part in helping Mr. Frobisher acclimatize." "My part, my dear, in case you hadn't noticed, is to be the rotten apple," he counters, "and your part, Miss Fairfax, is to keep me in line. Though you, Percy. You are--" "The ingénue. The new hopeful?" I suggest. "Another credulous mind for the Institute to mold," Dennis offers instead. "The Institute does nothing of the sort, Mr. Royal," says Miss Fairfax. "So, have you been given one of these?" says Mr. Royal, turning back to me again, and pinching the fabric at his chest, "a fucking getup?" Miss Fairfax now reaches down into her bag and pulls out a slim, plastic-wrapped package and slides it part of the way across the table. Inside the parcel, carefully folded, some kind of outfit. "A uniform," I protest. "Well, of course," she replies. True, many of the locals I've seen since arriving out here are uniformed in one way or another. At the airport even, and the hotel. Jumpsuits mostly. They must delineate class in some way. Color-coded or some such. Keep the tiers sorted. Make the castes intelligible to one another. "Unfortunately, it's not optional," she adds. All right, all right. My clothes were wrecked from the trip anyway. "We have limited quantities. You only get the one." She nudges the package another inch. Mr. Royal is smirking again. I slide the package into my lap. "Good," Miss Fairfax exhales. "Good." Dennis shrugs. "So," I say, addressing them both, "any other surprises?" And so, more dialogue, here (though no more surprises). Instead, all of that expatriate talk about what everyone misses, and what, of the new experiences, are worth having; and more importantly, whose experiences have been the deepest; who has been most subsumed into sheer foreignness. In other words, who has remade themselves to the fullest extent. Both my new colleagues have a thing or two to say about fellowships in general, how this collective differs from others, in what ways it is the same. They tell me of a local oligarch (or sheikh or some such) who has paid for all this. How he wishes to furnish the desert with creatives. As Dennis puts it: "irrigating the place with culture. We are pumped in and diffused; the Freehold is hoping something will take root out here." We speak of the other fellows, the various disciplines they represent, though the gossip is what Mr. Royal clearly relishes. His distaste for those aspects of the Institute which are (I want to say: institutional) is unmistakable. Miss Fairfax seems visibly animated when discussing the Institute, the projects and their taxonomies. She is thorough on schedules and procedures, and I am sure I am retaining none of it. I pull my old fountain pen from my front pocket and spin it through my fingers. Twirl it mindlessly over my thumb. I can feel the vibrations from Mr. Royal's skinny leg, the one adjacent to mine, which is oscillating up and down like a sewing machine needle. I imagine him fashioning something under the table--a flag, emblazoned with money signs. Miss Fairfax's hands are resting in her lap. I can just make them out under the table. Her hands are facing upward, their fingers curling toward her palm, occasionally twitching or pulsing inward, like upended crabs. More importantly, I notice myself noticing these details, making such analogies, and realize that my mind is beginning to pull up anchor. Everything, now, seems put on. I cease to belong to myself. I notice the scurf on the pale man's right cheek, his obsolete earring-hole. I notice the petro-lime smell of the room's industrial cleanser. I hear cicadas buzzing inside the room, this room--from the speakers--Alpine Meadows; Coastal Tranquility? Nature, denatured. "Denatured" is good. I remind myself to whisper that down to my device, later. Now he says something, and she says something. (Him again; then her. Her; him . . . or maybe they don't alternate, and it is the same voice all along. Idk.) Another gap. "Percy?" Miss Fairfax says, and again, a bit louder. "Sorry." "We'll see you tonight," she says. "Don't be late," Mr. Royal drawls, waggling a finger. Miss Fairfax swats at him with an Institute brochure, before sliding it neatly into the breast pocket of my jacket. Miss Fairfax concludes with a quick smile, and a friendly embrace. Mr. Royal holds out a limp hand for me as if to kiss. I shake it. Mission accomplished. I'm back in the car alone, a driver only implied. Out on the Institute thoroughfare, I finally see the denizens of the place, leaking from the widely spaced, large concrete buildings--one is an outsized column punctuated by irregularly spaced windows; another a distorted triangle; a third is an enormous piece of Brutalist shrapnel. A scheduled period must have just ended. Fellows are swarming like ants from a hill; everyone dressed in uniforms, admins dressed in blue. Here and there, work crews, in pink coveralls and caps. By the side of the road, a woman is sitting on a bench by the artificial lake. She is drawn, ascetic, virginal. Reading on her device. She doesn't look up as the car passes. She's wearing a similar getup to that worn by the other fellows. Her aspect and posture. So bony and severe. Her (I want to say: foreign) eyes. They are alert and bright, clear, newly minted. Her eyes. Her eyes as she reads. I've passed her, and I whisper to my purring device as the car continues back down the palm-lined avenue toward the Residential Enclave. "Dramatis Personae," I say, and then I list everyone--Pale Man: Mr. Dennis Royal; Admin: Miss Fairfax, adding in "the Mysterious Woman" as an afterthought, and tagging her "Tbd." The car continues north, toward the Institute's interior--its nucleus--and away from the dome and its subtle boundary. I twist around in my seat to look out the car's rear window, and can see behind me, receding through the dome, the world of sand, stones, and senseless things; the lifeless world of heat and torpor. Farther out even, far off, I can still make out (barely) a dark gulf, scored like an old piece of slate. Beyond that is the white, illegible city. Such epic spaces. I think of my home, and its clutter--but here is empty and endless and I find these unbroken spans truly hard to fathom, or stomach. Excerpted from Same Same: A Novel by Peter Mendelsund All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.