Adult Contemporary

By Charles Yu

Murray chooses The Brad™ and right away feels he’s made a mistake.

“Let me ask you something,” the sales guy says. “Do you feel you’re making a mistake?”

It’s like he’s in my head, Murray thinks, but he tries not to show any indication either way because this guy’s good and he knows it, and Murray knows it, and the guy knows Murray knows it. The sales guy’s name is Rick, which strikes Murray as an appropriately false name for an unusually false person. Rick says something rehearsed about how you should try to do at least one thing each and every day that scares the living crap out of you, or some similar scrap of wisdom from a daily inspirational calendar. The truth is, though, that Murray does want to be scared or, if not exactly scared, then perhaps just a little out of control, or a lot out of control, that feeling of not knowing what is going to happen next but also, on top of that, or maybe underneath that, or wrapped all around it, a feeling that the danger is temporary and all part of a larger scheme, toward his ultimate triumph or redemption or at least escape to safety. His whole life Murray has always felt like something was just about to happen, but never quite seems to, as if any moment now, his life is about to start, the day is approaching, when all of it starts to come together or fall apart for the purpose of later coming back together, the feeling that every little detail, from the coffee he spilled on his shirt this morning to the song he heard on the radio in his car on the way here, the time he spends staring in his bathroom mirror wondering what is so unlovable about his face, Murray wants to feel that all of it, all of this is leading toward something big, wants to feel anything, as long as it is real.

The sales guy puts the paper in front of him and shows him where to sign and Murray is confused: this is a real estate contract? The sales guy looks like he has gotten this question a million times and smiles a smile that Murray thinks is probably meant to communicate, hey, nothing to worry about, you’re in good hands here, or something like that, but the gesture, a kind of practiced sincerity, is having the opposite effect.

“It’s a 2BR/2BA lifestyle,” Rick says.

“It’s a condo.”

“We prefer to call it a managed experiential product,” Rick says.

It’s warm in the room, and Murray has been sitting here, his complimentary iced-lime-passion-fruit green tea sweating onto the salesman’s desk, for close to an hour, going back and forth between The Brad™ and The Jake™. How the heck is he supposed to make a choice like this? Just like this? Right here and now, locking himself in forever? No, no, the sales guy reassures him, Murray has seven days to change his mind, no questions asked. In fact, it’s actually state law, Rick says, as if he had just remembered it, but it sounds to Murray like just one more part of the pitch, like a line, as if Rick is just reciting from a script, verbatim, right out of a playbook, right down to the word “actually,” which Murray realizes should make him feel icky, like a customer, but actually the actually, the idea that there might be a script, that this sales guy whose real name may or may not be Rick, the possibility that this Rick or “Rick” sitting across from him might not really be talking to Murray but in some sense performing, that is actually what finally gets Murray, not so much the performance by Rick (or maybe the performance by “Rick”) itself but what that would imply, the prospect of a structured interaction, of going through something, what Murray has always thought of as the stuff of life, the chance that, for once, he might get to be tangled in that stuff, a bit of drama for an old guy like Murray who all his life has never really been able to afford much in the way of drama. What does he have to look back on, to look forward to? He is retired now, after forty years, with a small pension, small but enough. A widower, with a few friends, and a son who doesn’t call him enough. Maybe I am making a mistake, Murray thinks, but maybe that’s what’s been missing. Mistakes. Risk. The chance of something going right. The willingness to look like a fool in the hope that he might actually get to feel something again.

So Murray signs.

Rick congratulates him on his decision, and right away the air-conditioning kicks in. Murray feels a little bit tricked, realizing they’d been keeping it warm all that time, but before he can think too hard, Rick is moving Murray along.

“What is that?” Murray says.

“That’s your sound track,” Rick tells him.

“Who picked it?”

“It comes with The Brad.”

“Does it seem kind of loud to you?” Murray asks.

“You’ll get used to it,” Rick says. “People can get used to anything.”

Murray has a hard time believing it. “Seems kind of loud.”

“Come on,” Rick says. “Let me show you to your new life.”

Then he flicks open a hidden compartment on the side of the desk and touches a button and the walls fall away. They’re still sitting at the desk but now the desk is outside, they are outside, in the middle of a very large, very dark green lawn, the grass mown immaculately, smelling so much like grass that Murray almost wonders if what he is smelling is actual grass or a laboratory-synthesized version of the odor of grass that smells even more like grass than grass itself.

“What’s your favorite season?” Rick asks Murray.

“I don’t know,” Murray says. “Fall, I guess.”

Rick hits another button and all of the leaves on the trees begin to float down from the branches, great flat blankets, canopies of yellow and orange and ocher and now the air smells different.

“I’ve always loved Autumn®,” Rick explains. “It has the best music.”

Murray can smell a mixture of things: the wafting perfumed air that hits you when you walk into a fancy department store. A little bit of that new car smell. The smell of paper and high-quality ink from a mailbox full of glossy brochures, catalogs for expensive home appliances. A leafy, windy smell. The smell of cold itself, the smell of wanting to be indoors, shaking off your coat, the smell of the season of roasting things and sipping things and buying things.

“The Brad is our most popular offering in Adult Contemporary,” Rick says. Murray looks down and realizes they are on some kind of path indicated by a painted golden line, subtly blended into the landscaping, but clearly demarcating their course. Rick pulls a gleaming key from his pocket and hands it to Murray with a bit of a flourish. Murray puts the key into the keyhole and turns it. With a heavy click of the tumblers, the faux-mahogany door opens and they are both hit by a wave of new-house smell, the chemical-tinged perfume of clean carpets, a swirled-together mixture, aromas of wood and leather and fresh paint.

Murray stands there inside his new The Brad™ taking it all in. On a flat-screen television in his entryway there is a listing of today’s lifestyle events.

“There’s tai chi by the duck pond at two thirty today,” Murray says, reading from the schedule. “Followed by an ice cream social on the lanai.”

“Yes, yes, there is that. And so much more,” Rick says. He tells Murray that it’s a series of emotional flavors, designer moods, a Palazzo-level recreational narrative.

“Timeshare,” Murray mumbles. “You sold me a timeshare.”

“Yeah,” Rick admits, breaking character. “I did, didn’t I?” Rick allows himself a slight grin, a little internal high-five for another sales job well done.

“I still have seven days to change my mind.”

“This is true,” Rick says. “But you won’t.”

“How do you know?”

Part Two

Rick takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, and is silent for a long five seconds. Then he puts his hands firmly but warmly on Murray’s shoulders and looks him in the eye.

“Murray, I have to tell you something. You made a huge mistake. You should have trusted your gut instinct.”

“What?” Murray says, with more than a hint of panic. “What are you talking about?”

“You have cancer, Murray,” Rick says with a heavy, insincere sigh. “I’m so sorry.”

“I don’t understand,” Murray says. “How could I have cancer?”

Rick hands Murray a nine-by-twelve manila envelope. Murray’s name and Social Security number are printed on a label in the upper right-hand corner. Murray takes it, and it feels stiff and surprisingly weighty, as if there might be a thick sheaf of lab results in there, or X-rays, or some other grim document laying out his future as a set of probabilities or regions of fuzzy dark gray, darkness and grayness that are growing by the day.

“Wait a minute, did I have cancer before I bought The Brad? I don’t understand. Did you give me cancer?” Rick gives him a look that is both patronizing and beneficent, as if to say, don’t be silly, and also I care about you, you silly old fool, don’t you know how much we all care about you?

“You wanted something to happen, right?” Rick says. “For all of this to be leading up to something? Closure,” Rick says, pointing at the manila envelope. “That is definitely one way to have closure.”

“I didn’t say I wanted closure. Drama. I said I wanted drama.”

“What do you think drama is, Murray?”

“How about something more open-ended?”

“Oh sure, that can be arranged, too,” Rick says. “But even open-ended stories have to end at some point, right? Open endings, after all, are still endings.”

Then Murray realizes that he never said anything about drama. He thought about it in his head.

“What, just because it’s in italics you think I can’t hear it?” Rick says. “That was part of your story, too. Your inner monologue. All of it. It’s all part of Murray Choosing The Brad.”

Who are you? Murray thinks. Or what are you?

You haven’t figured it out, yet? I’m your narrator, Murray.

You’re a sales guy.

Sales guy for a narrative experiential lifestyle product, narrator. Just titles, really. My job is to sell this story to you. To make it yours. To make you believe. To make you feel something again. Isn’t that what you wanted?

The Brad™ they are in disappears, roof, then ceiling, then the walls one at a time, then the floor, then the furniture, each layer and element dematerializing in sequence, and then Murray and Rick are standing in an empty city, Vancouver shot for Los Angeles, Toronto shot for New York, night shot for day, not eternal yet somehow hourless, a place yet somehow unplaceable, an architecture trying to be everywhere and in doing so becoming nowhere.

“Where is this?” Murray asks.

“It’s a commercial break.”

Murray notices that all of the cars are luxury sedans, white and featureless. With a burst of accompanying indie rock, a silver coupe comes slicing around the corner, tight suspension and race-car handling and tinted windows, and the whole world goes into slow motion, all of the other cars and all of the other drivers, except for the hero car and its driver, who has a smile of perfect self-satisfaction, and Murray realizes this is his chance to make a break for it, to escape Rick and The Brad™, and Murray, no spring chicken really in the winter of his days, nevertheless takes off running down the alley and sees a chain-link fence and he can’t remember the last time he did what he is about to do and, with an old-man sort of frog hop, Murray catches on to the fence and clambers up and gingerly over the top, and lowers himself down on the other side, where he turns to see that he is in a different city now. Not a city at all, really.

Murray pauses to catch his breath, then resumes running, which slows to a jog, which slows to a brisk walk. It’s quiet now, no sound track here, and Murray sees why: he’s on some kind of backstage lot, now, which he knows because he sees crews of men constructing sets and façades, making a town that looks like just the town Murray grew up in. Even more like the town he remembers: an imagined place more real than the place it is supposed to be. A designed substitute that destroys the memory of the original. Murray sees a sign that says

Coming Soon

(from AEI, the people who brought you
The Brad™):

YOUR HOMETOWN

and below it another sign that says “Re-Authenticization in Process” and below that, in minuscule type, a legal notice that the town is now owned by The American Experience, LLC, whose parent company, American Entertainments, Inc. (AEI), is a subsidiary itself of a company called The USAmusement Corporation, which is owned by a German conglomerate, New World Experiments GmbH, owned by a consortium led by Chinese and Korean investors. All around is new ground being broken, dig sites surrounded by chain-link fences, men working in hard hats, large colorful banners proclaiming that Your Hometown will be relaunched in the Fall of 2015.

Murray runs from door to door, looking for an exit from this place. It all looked so good in the brochures, but now he isn’t sure where he is, doesn’t know anymore what is real or not real, whether he really does have cancer or if that is just part of this, this whatever-it-is, experiential lifestyle product or whatever Rick, or whoever-he-is, called it. True, Murray had been looking for some kind of adventure, but this is not exactly what he had in mind, this manufactured situation, not a fantasy but a kind of trick of the mind, a trick of the heart. This is the same place, the town as advertised, not just a town with a lowercase “t” but a Town, the Town, the scene having been redone by the Tourism Bureau, quantified in the grand Re-Quaintification Initiative, a restoration of the town’s rich history and tradition, which Murray now understands as just more advertising copy written by AEI. All of the buildings and street signs and lampposts and mailboxes, all of it décor, a set, a three-dimensional illusion, part physical, part digital, designed with the purpose of making Murray, or not Murray, the citizen of the town, the citizen of American Entertainments, Inc., a corporate-owned municipality, or citizen wasn’t the right word—customer—all of it designed to make the customer a tourist in his own hometown. A hometown that he never really grew up in, one that never even existed. Everything that had seemed comforting about it before, the ornate overhangs, the stained wood porches, the restaurant signs with all of the charming fonts all serving chicken fingers, all of it now seems off.

Murray is in an empty theme park, an hour before it opens, not quite ready to be the place it is supposed to be.

Or perhaps a deserted back lot, an abandoned set for one of those network shows, with all of the mopey people in large houses, being sad at each other. That’s it, Murray realizes, although he isn’t quite sure what he is realizing, it is more like the feeling of realizing something, which people in those shows tend to do much more often than in actual life.

Part Three

Murray tries another door and finally one opens, and now he’s running up what appears to be some kind of corporate office disguised as part of the town. The elevator door is open and lit and appears to be waiting for Murray, which gives Murray the creeps and he thinks it might be best, if this is some kind of story planned out for him, if this is all part of The Brad™, that maybe he should avoid that elevator, if he’s going to have any chance of getting out of here. Plus, Murray can hear music coming out of that elevator, and not just any music, but the same music heard before, the sound track, his sound track or the sound track to Autumn®, thundering major-chord tonality, the melody seeming to physically lift something inside Murray, lifting him up and drawing him toward the elevator, and Murray wonders if somehow the song has been engineered to fit him, based on some kind of preference matrix, to suit his emotional and psychological makeup, to push his invisible buttons, buttons he didn’t even realize he had until he heard this music, and Murray knows that he can’t get in the elevator. He opens the door marked “Exit” and goes through it and sees, a moment too late, that it isn’t an exit, now he is in the stairwell and the door has shut behind him. He tries it. Locked. He shakes it with all of his strength, waning now, he’s tired, but gives it a good shake and kicks the handle a few times for good measure, but knows he has no choice but to go up the stairs, probably up to wherever the elevator was going to take him anyway. He has been fooled, he sees, trying to avoid the elevator, the choice he thought that they wanted him to take, and now he has taken the choice that they wanted him to take anyway. I’m losing it, Murray thinks. They? Who are they? And just when Murray thinks he might be paranoid, he hears the sound track, faint, coming from up above, the sound falling down the stairwell, getting louder as he climbs each flight. He checks each floor of this empty, fake building, knowing that he will end up on the roof, because that’s where they want him to go. The music is getting louder and the feeling is getting stronger, stronger in proportion to the volume of the sound track, the feeling that Murray is realizing something. What has come over me? Murray wonders, and it occurs to him that searching frantically for an exit is perhaps exactly what someone in Murray’s situation would be expected to do. That’s what Murray has been doing all his life. Getting up when the alarm goes off. Going to work. Coming straight home from work. A drink or three in the evening, and do it all over again. Straight ahead, plodding along with the plot. And now he has signed up for more of the same, wanting a little taste of what other people had, lured in by the promise of two bedrooms and two bathrooms with shiny fixtures and baskets of individually wrapped soaps, all of the shiny products just part of the larger one, the largest one, a way of life, life itself as a product. This is what he has always wanted, or so he had thought, but now here he is, in the middle of a story of his own and looking for the exit, and realizing all the exits are blocked and then realizing that an exit is not what he needs. Why should he leave? He, for once, is the center of the story, and for the first time in as long as he can remember, Murray feels that he is in control. This is it: his all-time high point. The apex of his trajectory, his moment of total freedom, the moment that Murray has been waiting for his whole life. To feel completely free and real and himself. An authentic experience. This is my real self, Murray thinks, but almost as soon as he thinks it, he wonders, who is deciding that? Himself, or some self separate from the self, and what is an authentic experience if you realize it as such while still having it? Now that Murray has labeled it as authentic, could it still be that? Who is putting these ideas into my head? And he wonders if they are even his own ideas or somehow part of The Brad™, part of some kind of dramedic consciousness, an internal voice-over, that the product engineers at American Entertainments, Inc., have come up with a way to make him understand his own life as a kind of story. Is that it? Murray wonders, and as he reaches the top of the stairwell and throws open the roof access door, Murray thinks, yes, that’s right, you’ve got it, and he realizes that he didn’t think that last thought, no you didn’t, Murray, that was me, and he sees Rick standing up on top of the ledge of the building, six stories up, and he says, hey Murray, and Murray realizes Rick is somehow narrating directly into Murray’s head.

“Stop that,” Murray screams.

“Oh fine,” Rick says.

“How did you get up here?” Murray says between gulps of air.

“You thought it would be that easy to get rid of me?”

“Kind of, yeah.”

“Don’t you see? You can’t escape your arc.”

“My life isn’t an arc,” Murray says. “I’ve figured it out.”

“That so? Tell me.”

“I’m not fighting it anymore,” Murray says.

“Go on,” Rick says, with a smile. “I’m listening.” He hands Murray a handkerchief to wipe his forehead.

Murray takes it and dries off, wiping his face and neck. “I made a break for it during the commercial,” Murray says, after catching his breath.

“Yup.”

“I heard the music in the elevator, so I took the stairs.”

“Yes, yes.”

“By resisting your story, I was actually creating it for you.”

Rick looks a little surprised. “Pretty good,” he says. “Really good, actually. Hardly anyone ever figures that out. But let me ask you a question: what are you going to do now?”

“I’ve still got seven days to change my mind.”

“This is true,” Rick says. “But let me show you something.”

Rick pulls a small ring box out of his pocket and opens it to reveal a small toggle switch.

“What is that?” Murray says.

“The on-off switch.”

“To what?”

“Why don’t you flip it and find out?”

Part Four

As soon as Murray hits the switch, he is deafened by a horrible grinding sound. From out of nowhere Rick produces two sets of earphones. He hands one to Murray and puts the other pair on himself.

“Ah, that’s better,” says Rick. “Can you hear me?”

Murray nods, unsure of how he feels with Rick once again talking right into his head, but then he sees where the grinding is coming from.

“I’ll give you a moment,” Rick says, as he watches Murray take in what he’s looking at, which is the same town he was just running through, the Town, only now it’s not empty, but filled with workers in orange jumpsuits. From behind false walls and through false doors, men appear in twos and threes, wearing blue jackets that say “CONTINUITY” on the back, armed with pressurized canisters and fine brushes.

“That stuff is called RealLife™,” Rick says. “Aerosolized Themed Ambience.”

Rick and Murray watch as the men descend upon threadbare corners of the room, holes in the scene where the wire frame is showing through, or the substrate, or whatever was underneath, expertly applying coats and touch-ups to blank patches of reality, surgical and precise with their movements, smoothing over, restoring, stitching the illusion back together, and then, just as quickly as they appeared, the Continuity maintenance workers disappear.

“Where are we?” Murray says.

“Backstage,” Rick says.

The next wave of workers appears, in purple jumpsuits, with white lettering on the back that reads “DISCONTINUITY,” and Murray watches as they appear to undo some of the work that was just done by their predecessors in Continuity, selectively erasing certain bits of the landscape, scuffing a corner here, rubbing away a bit of reality there. Rick explains to Murray that these guys are actually from a completely different department than Continuity.

“It’s part of Accounts Receivable,” Rick says.

If a customer doesn’t keep current on payments of the Continuity Maintenance Fee for The Brad™ or The Jake™ or whatever other product they may have chosen, then corporate calls in the continuity disruption team to initiate the Experience Degradation Ladder.

“Like repo men,” Murray says. “For the life I bought.”

“Now you’re catching on,” Rick says. “Look at all that. It’s a beautiful thing.” Murray tries to see what Rick is talking about, but all he sees is a kind of factory. A manufacturing process for a way of life. Taking anything, experience, a piece of experiential stuff, a particle of particularity, a sound, a day, a song, a bunch of stuff that happens to people, a thing that makes you laugh, a visual, a feeling, whatever. A mess. A blob. A chunk. A messy, blobby, chunky glob of stuff. Unformed, raw noncontent that gets engineered, honed, and refined until some magical point where it has been processed to sufficient smoothness and can be extruded from the machine: content. A chunk of content, homogeneous and perfect for slicing up into Content Units. All of this for the customer-citizens, who demand it, or not even demand it but come to expect it, or not even expect it, as that would require awareness of any alternative to the substitute, an understanding that this was not always so, that, once upon a time, there was the real thing. They don’t demand it or expect it. They assume it. The product is not a product, it’s built into the very notion of who they are. Content Units everywhere, all of it coming from the same source: jingles, news, ads. Ads, ads, ads. Ads running on every possible screen. Screens at the grocery store, in the coffee line, on the food truck, in your car, on top of taxis, on the sides of buses, in the air, on the street signs, in your office, in the lobby, in the elevator, in your pocket, in your home. Content pipelines productive as ever, churning and chugging, pumping out the content day and night, conceptual smokestacks billowing out content-manufacturing waste product emissions, marginal unit cost of content dropping every day, content just piling up, containers full, warehouses full, cargo ships full, the channels stuffed to bursting with content. So much content that they needed to make new markets just to find a place to put all of it, had to create the Town, and after that, another Town, and beyond that, who knew? What were the limits for American Entertainments, Inc., and its managed-narrative experiential lifestyle products? How big could the Content Factory get?

“You brought me up here to see this?” Murray says.

“No,” Rick says, “I brought you up here to see that.”

Murray looks down to see his son getting out of his car.

“He’s here to see you,” Rick says. “He heard you’re . . . ”

“Let me guess,” Murray says. “Cancer.”

“The doctors say you’ve got six months. But with modern medicine, who knows? You might live happily ever after. Or at least, happily enough.”

“Your doctors? In here? TV doctors?”

“They’re the best in the world. They also have very complicated love lives.”

“I’m not even sick,” Murray says.

“Are you sure about that?”

“Is that, are you, is that some kind of threat?”

“No, no no, noooo. Murray, come on. I’m not a bad guy. I’m not your antagonist. I’m just here to give you choices.”

Part Five

Murray looks down again and sees his son, someone or something that looks exactly like his son. Except that something seems off.

“Wait a minute,” Murray says. “Is that even my real son?”

“Depends on how you define real,” Rick says. “Are you sure you’re still the real Murray?”

Murray doesn’t even know what that means, but he is tired of this sales guy messing with his head and it seems to Murray that the absolute right thing to do, or perhaps absolute wrong thing to do, or perhaps the absolute right thing to do because it is the absolute wrong thing to do, or just in terms of what will feel good, would be to punch Rick or “Rick” or whatever right in that smug mouth of his, so Murray plants a foot, puts his weight into it as best he knows how, and pops Rick right in that very real mouth of his, flesh and bone on flesh and teeth and that, Murray is sure, is something solid and visceral and real, and Rick goes down.

“Wow,” Rick says, still lying on the ground, hand covering his mouth, blood running onto his gums and fingers.

“Sorry,” Murray says, shocked by what he’s done. “I guess I watch too much TV.”

“No no no,” Rick says. “Happens to me all the time. It’s a good way to end your story. Something tangible, decisive, action-oriented.”

“I was supposed to hit you?” Murray says, coming to see what that means. “I can’t escape my arc.”

Rick nods, like a proud teacher. “You’re not going to live forever. Everyone has their time, of course, but if you stay in here, it’ll be dramatic, and meaningful, and all of that good stuff,” Rick says, pointing down at Murray’s son or “son” or whatever. “And as you can see, you won’t be alone. This is what it comes down to, Murray. If you stay in here, you get closure. If you leave, well, I don’t know what happens to you out there.”

What am I going to do now? Murray thinks, now realizing that he really is having his epiphany: he is free. Completely free. This is his big Change of Life scene. All his life he’s been waiting. But even now as it is happening, as he tries to hold on to it, it is slipping from him, a shell, just the diaphanous skin of an epiphany, which, with the softest whisper, slips off and floats into the air, the form of the experience, without the substance, the husk of a moment. It feels false. A false resolution. Closure. This is what Rick is offering: a sound-tracked life. Life as a story. A story as a product. Is this really the best he can hope for? Is this all there is?

Shut up, Murray thinks to himself. Just shut the hell up and stop narrating to yourself. Shut up shut up shut up shut up. Shut up.

And then it’s quiet. The factory is gone. Rick is gone. The music is gone. Even Murray’s own internal monologue is gone. Behind Murray is his backstory, his life. In front of him is who knows what. But how does he just go on now, having seen what he’s seen? The guts of it. The gears. The machinery of production of his reality. His existence as a customer. As a paying customer in a managed lifestyle experience. This is what it is, what it has been for some time now. The only difference is that now he knows it. Murray has chosen The Brad™ but it’s not enough, or it’s too much, or neither or both. His life is not a dramedy. There is no arc. No episodes, no tuning in next week, no sound track, no ending, happy or sad. He may or may not have cancer. He may or may not have anyone who cares. He has a son in the world, somewhere, who might or might not think of Murray every day. Not much else. Not enough for a story, Murray thinks, here at the edge of his own story, but it will have to do, somehow it’s going to have to be enough, and somehow it is. It’s enough.