The New York Times
The Futuristby James P. Othmer
"Yates is a Futurist. Which is to say he makes a very good living flying around the world dispensing premonitory wisdom, aka prepackaged bullshit, to world governments, corporations, and global leadership conferences. He is an optimist by trade and a cynic by choice. He's the kind of man who can give a lecture on successive days to a leading pesticide manufacturer and… See more details below
"Yates is a Futurist. Which is to say he makes a very good living flying around the world dispensing premonitory wisdom, aka prepackaged bullshit, to world governments, corporations, and global leadership conferences. He is an optimist by trade and a cynic by choice. He's the kind of man who can give a lecture on successive days to a leading pesticide manufacturer and the Organic Farmers of America, and receive standing ovations at both." But just as the American Empire is beginning to fray around the edges, so too is Yates's carefully scripted existence. On the way to the Futureworld Conference in Johannesburg, he opens a handwritten note from his girlfriend, saying she's left him for a sixth-grade history teacher. Then he witnesses a soccer riot in which a number of South Africans are killed, to the chagrin of the South African PR people at Futureworld. Sparked by a heroic devastation of his minibar and inspired by the rookie hooker sent to his hotel room courtesy of his hosts, Yates delivers a spectacularly career-ending speech at Futureworld, which leads to a sound beating, a meeting with some quasi-governmental creeps, and a hazy mission to go around the world answering the question: Why does everyone hate us?
The New York Times
The Washington Post
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
By James P. Othmer
Random HouseJames P. Othmer
All right reserved.
The Futurist never saw it coming. But now that he thinks of it, it's not surprising. Not surprising that she's telling him in the most intentionally archaic way: a pen-and-ink note slipped into his state-of-the-art carry-on. Written in past tense. The only way Lauren could have topped the irony of this is to have told him via foot messenger. Or carrier pigeon. Or smoke signals. All of which would be hard to do right now, since he's 37,000 feet in the air somewhere between New York and Johannesburg. But she does top this. Right after a passage that begins with Among the many reasons I can suffer you no longer and concludes with delusional, sociopathic prognosticator, she tells Yates--the Futurist--that she's leaving him for a sixth-grade history teacher.
"What?" Yates asks.
"It's blue-flame hot. Everyone thought it would be revenge. Or some crippling mass anxiety. But it's healing." Blevins is sitting beside Yates in first class. He consults part-time for Yates and moonlights as a class reunion designer.
"What, are kickboxing-for-healers classes suddenly popping up at the Soho Equinox? Has Miramax optioned the rights to the word?"
"I'm just saying--"
"Tonight on the Healing Channel--"
Blevins presses on. "Anything Celtic, for some reason, isstill hot. The charming little-people part, not the warring hordes. Ancient disasters continue to fascinate. Mountain tragedies and/or nautical disasters, with the fascination value of said disaster increasing relative to its respective depth or height."
"With an underwater mountain tragedy being the ultimate." Yates reaches for the Maker's Mark.
"Angels were hot, but now you can't give them away. Buddhism, we are thinking, is due to break through in the U.S. in a big way."
"Is that related to the healing?"
"Buddhism and unprotected sex. The I-don't-give-a-fuck factor has never been so mainstreamed."
"I hear Turkey's still hot. Despite . . ."
"Yeah. But it's never just a place. It's the combination of extreme American activity and obscure locale."
"Skateboarding in Mongolia."
"Boogie-boarding the Yangtze."
"Fucking in outer space."
"Exactly." Blevins smacks his hands together, waking the British resin-furniture mogul in 4D. "So?"
Yates stares at the small screen on the seat back in front of him. The progress of his flight is charted by a flashing dot on a map of the hemisphere. Eight hours from refueling in Cape Verde, another four from the Futureworld Conference in Johannesburg.
"Hardly H. G. Wellsian."
"I agree. Which is why . . . Did you get a chance to look at the other stuff?"
"The insights with a little more substance."
" 'The Future of Racism'? 'The Invisible Poor'?"
"Yeah. What'd you think?"
"I didn't get a chance to read them. In fact, I left them home."
"For Africa alone I have tons of stuff on AIDS, famine, education."
"This shouldn't be news to you: nobody wants to hear a bleak futurist, Blevins. And it's not like I haven't tried."
"But you haven't tried in a while."
Yates lowers his drink, stares at Blevins, and thinks, You're picking a bad time to lay a guilt trip on me.
"Besides, it doesn't have to be so bleak if you spin it right. If you serve it up as an opportunity rather than an indictment."
Yates yawns. Blevins takes a breath, pushes on. "There's a lot more. I just beamed it onto your laptop."
Yates looks down at his crotch, feeling more than a little violated knowing that part of Blevins has gotten so close. And it's the worst part of Blevins at that--the well-intentioned part. He looks back at the tiny screen map. For a moment the flashing dot seems to go in reverse, one hundredth of a degree latitude back toward America.
He tries to picture her planning it, curling up on the couch and listing the best ways to push his forward-thinking buttons with the most humiliating results. Let's see. Whom to leave him for? An archaeologist? Genealogist? Antiques dealer? Presidential biographer? Or--this is perfect--a history teacher. He closes his eyes and there she is in the apartment of a lanky, bearded vegan with body odor, coupling on the floor atop a suede-elbowed tweed jacket and thirty-two scattered, Internet-plagiarized essays on the battle of Hastings. He wonders if a circumstance can be ironic if it's been so malevolently choreographed.
From the seat pocket in front of him he removes the folder containing the outline of his unfinished speech and, somehow, the emergency evacuation instructions for the Boeing 747. Most in his field would kill just to be able to network at something like Futureworld, but Yates is even more privileged. He is a VIP speaker, a bona fide A-list player in the culture of expectation, a highly compensated observer of the global soul, with press clippings a yard high to prove it. Indeed, he's been in constant demand since the day four years ago that he coined the phrase which for fifteen minutes became the rallying cry of a generation. Ballplayers worked it into postgame clichés. The president used it in a speech before both houses of Congress. Even a pornographic movie was named after it. In many ways Yates's star has never been brighter, but now he feels it coursing through him, a crisis of faith, a waning confidence in the very future he sells. After so many years of it--several books (mostly ghostwritten), commencement speeches (all ghostwritten), a fawning Charlie Rose, conferences like TED, Davos, Tomorrow-a-Go-Go--after repeated optimistic promises of a better world yet to come, he's convinced that none of it will ever be. He no longer feels excitement for the future, but a deep nostalgia for it. As if the future is something already lost.
A young black man with a placard bearing Yates's name greets him at the international arrivals gate in Johannesburg. "I'm David, your chaperone," he says, handing Yates a business card. "Whatever you need. Transportation, shopping--anything, anytime." At customs, David goes to a special line, nods to the agent, and Yates is waved through. At the terminal exit, Yates glances back and sees Blevins still fumbling with his documents, scanning the ceiling for a sign that can make sense of the chaos.
Chattel houses in primary colors. Smoking heaps of sidewalk trash. Barefoot children in the shadow of Colonel Sanders. High-rises and corporate parks inhabited by squatters. The shucked shell of a city. Yates observes the world through windows that roll only a third of the way down. Through black-tinted, bulletproof glass. He sits alone in back seats and attempts candid conversations with drivers paid to accommodate. He gleans local lore from chatty bellhops, from Condé Nast Traveler. From the top steps of grand hotels he elicits profound sociological insights. From a part in the curtains of eighteenth-floor executive suites he absorbs geopolitical expertise. He gets it with his healthy start breakfast from English-speaking room service waiters. From free newspapers dropped outside his door. From SpectraVision. Then he chronicles it, rolls it around in his head, and distills it down to anecdote, to conversation starter, to pithy one-liner, and finally he turns it into a highly proprietary, singularly respected worldly expertise that is utter and complete bullshit.
Outside the window, thousands in the morning fog, walking. "Where are they going, David?"
"The bus terminal, sir. To jobs in the suburbs. Sandton. Fourways. There's no work in the city, in places like Soweto. The business and the money surround the real city now. But the core is hollow."
"How can it survive?"
"Exactly, sir. This is an issue the Ministry of Business Development is addressing. And why they lobbied to have a conference with the prestige of Futureworld here. To have people like you stimulate thought, progress. The economy."
Yates looks at Lauren's letter, runs his finger along the blue veins of her cursive script as if searching for a pulse. His phone vibrates and Blevins's number comes up. Blevins, last seen drowning in a riptide of humanity. Should have offered him a ride. But after seventeen hours of his earnest babbling . . . Still, the poor bastard.
"Hey, David. Why don't you pull over, let me hop up front."
"I can't, sir."
"Why not? It'll be easier to talk."
"I would love to, sir. But it's not safe to stop here. Besides, if you're seen up front with me, I will lose my job."
He once did a trust fall at an anarchists' convention. He once gave the keynote address at a sports mascots' seminar, including a Q&A session that touched upon costuming, mime bashing, and health care. He once was a replacement judge at the Miss Crete contest. He
once addressed the sales force of a failing dot-com and a rollicking Luddite symposium in the same week and received standing ovations at both.
At registration they give him a canvas bag filled with corporate goodies, the latest digital gadgets, a menagerie of mahogany African animals, a leather Futureworld bomber jacket, and two bottles of Cape Town merlot. He scans the lobby for familiar faces. The preliminary materials had promised the likes of Jobs, Bezos, and Spielberg, the Google guys, Angelina Jolie, and a recently defeated presidential candidate. He sees none of them. But he does see Faith B. Popcorn, mother of all legitimate futurists. Faith B. Popcorn, Yates feels, can see more than the future. She can see through him. His sycophantic projections, his scientifically lewd dance with plagiarism--he's certain she's on to all of it and is itching to bring him down. Which is precisely why he lowers his head, turns away, and moves toward the elevators.
In his room at 10 A.M. he uncorks the first bottle of complimentary merlot, turns on Sky News, and opens his laptop. At every conference Yates answers to two sponsors. One is the true host, whose name appears on the posters. The second is almost always a corporate or political sponsor that pays him to subtly and sometimes not so subtly disseminate its message. This time it's the Johannesburg CBD, or Central Business District. Struggling economically, racially divided, ravaged by AIDS, poverty, and violence, Jo'burg wants to be a player on a global scale again. The speechwriting task is to somehow ignore the desperate reality and take the existing recipe and replace it with what the corporate world wants to hear. Insert name of relevant construction project here. Next cite the top-notch leadership team in place and of course the passionate people who work for it. Then sprinkle generous amounts of quotes from Thoreau, Verne, and--for tomorrow--Mandela. Throw in a dash of best-of one-liners, with apologies to everyone from Black Elk and John Lennon to Marshall McLuhan and the tabs of wisdom tied to Celestial Seasons tea bags. Be sure to suck up to the panelists, especially those who detest you most. Now add an uplifting anecdote about a local who overcame great odds, perhaps something from the Jo'burg Times or whatever it's called, or maybe about a profound scene witnessed en route from the airport. Then end it on a note of pure optimistic adrenaline. Paint a vivid picture of what can be. Describe it in absolutes. A day when every South African will be wirelessly connected to the free world. When Jo'burg will again be synonymous with the world's great capitals. A corporate renaissance. A health-care miracle. Racial harmony . . .
Yates used to believe it. Used to think things like this were possible, or at least admirable goals. He used to do his homework and think things through. He actually would talk to the locals, research the region, eschew partisan money. And he would earnestly try to
come up with conscientious, albeit undoable and improbably quick solutions to ancient problems. But now . . .
He e-mails Lauren, suggesting that they talk, but it gets kicked back. Next he tries her home number, which has been disconnected. Finally he dials her cell and lets it ring for fifteen minutes. Here's an observation that won't make it into his next telecom speech: right now it is possible to be dumped in real time from another continent, to careen into a digital wall of resentment and hostility at the speed of light.
A knock on the door. A young black woman in a tight red dress. Joani from Swaziland. Courtesy of the CBD. He gives her 100 rands and the commemorative Futureworld bomber jacket and sends her away. He sits back down and drinks. Channel surfs. Procrastinates. An hour later, another knock. David the chaperone.
"I thought you were another complimentary hooker."
"Nothing. Glass of wine?"
David looks at his watch. "I'm here to take you to the football match."
"It's on your itinerary. It is an important game."
"I really can't deal with soccer right now."
"It's part of your appearance contract."
Yates has never been to a soccer game, and this is a big one. Ellis Park Stadium is filled beyond capacity. The crowd rocks and sways with a tidal grace and magnitude, a singing, chanting force of nature. Looking around, he wonders if he's the only white man in the stadium. The riot begins soon after he's seated, but it is a while before he notices. A player receives a yellow card. Yates receives a gin and tonic. A teenage boy is stabbed in general admission. A joke is cracked in the VIP box. Blood flows on the hot concrete of section 214 and people start running for the tunnels. But the game continues. When the tunnels clog, a rush is made toward the field, which is caged off with thick wire. Yates notices none of it. The primal roar and collective groan that come when flesh presses upon itself to the point of bursting he chalks up to raucous enthusiasm. The gunshots he thinks are fireworks, and cheap Third World ones at that.
Excerpted from The Futurist by James P. Othmer Excerpted by permission.
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