Soft!

Soft!

5.0 1
by Rupert Thomson
     
 

The waitress Glade Spencer -- white-blond hair, perfect skin, just 22 years old -- drifts innocent and waiflike through life, thus far avoiding harm to herself. . . Barker Dodds, hoping to shed his hard-man reputation, has fled his native Plymouth for a fresh start in London. There, meanwhile, in an act of desperate inspiration, an ambitious young executive faced with… See more details below

Overview

The waitress Glade Spencer -- white-blond hair, perfect skin, just 22 years old -- drifts innocent and waiflike through life, thus far avoiding harm to herself. . . Barker Dodds, hoping to shed his hard-man reputation, has fled his native Plymouth for a fresh start in London. There, meanwhile, in an act of desperate inspiration, an ambitious young executive faced with a saturated market, contrives a revolutionary strategy for introducing a new beverage, Soft!, that has all the potential of becoming the soft drink of the 21st century. Once this highly confidential strategy develops unforeseen complications, Barker is paid a visit by a friend from the old life, and soon is presented with an unthinkable dilemma. And the person with whom he now shares a destiny -- unbeknownst to her -- is Glade.

Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
. .Rupert Thomson's most powerful novel yet. . . .A tight, hypnotic story involving scheming businessmen, ruthless corporate spinmeisters, and ambivalent hit men for hire. . .Imagine Carl Hiaasen & Elmore Leonard teaming up. . .Imagine Quentin Tarantino and Martin Amis collaborating.
New York Times
David Bowman

There's nothing to praise in this novel. Here's a metaphor: Consider a lunch counter where the burgers are small and overpriced and the soda jerk surly. It's not the worst eatery in town, but why on earth should anyone eat there? Now Soft! is a novel, not a dive, of course. And Rupert Thomson probably spent a year of his life writing it -- how can he just be written off? Especially when his third novel, Air & Fire, was a masterly retelling of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo. Thomson's last book, The Insult, was a little dull, but not too dull that a reader didn't want to finish it.

But that's the thing! A few readers must finish every book they start. But many don't. Unless they're reviewing the title, they throw the book down if it doesn't engage them by page 50. Well, the first 50 pages of Soft! are like a glass filled with flat Coke. They concern a small-time English hood named Barker Dodds doing small-time hood things. The next 50 pages are even flatter, following a new uninspiring character, waitress Glade Spencer. Then the story begins yet again on page 115 when a British advertising executive (a "Senior Brand Manager" named Jimmy) gets a brainstorm about how to market a new soft drink called, ah-ha, Soft: What if you take a group of everyday people and subliminally program them to love Soft? Not just to love it, but to become evangelists for the product? Talk about word of mouth! But how would you hypnotize them? Pay unsuspecting citizens to sleep in a "laboratory" as part of a "sleep research" program. Then while they're conked on drugs, pump their brain with subliminal advertising.

The bulk of the novel is a dull noir concerning the British advertising industry. A reader is reintroduced to Glade Spencer. She's been brainwashed. She desperately craves Soft. Not only that, she craves all things that are orange like the Soft can. When news of Soft's unique and criminal advertising strategy is about to be made public, Barker Dodds is hired to silence the waitress.

Thomson probably started writing a novel about Jimmy and brainwashing and soda pop. Then he created the waitress character. Then the thug. Thomson fell in love with the thug first. Then Thomson thought the waitress seemed promising. Just who the hell was the protagonist of this novel anyway? So Thomson restructured Soft! Maybe if the thug and the waitress were engaging characters, or if Thomson's prose weren't so bland here, the book would have worked. But it doesn't. If you want to know the truth, many readers will not get past page 30 in Soft! A good line appears on page 132: "It was the first time in his life that Jimmy had ever seen a jaw actually drop." But good Christ! Why spend both $24 and two hours of your life just to read, "It was the first time in his life that Jimmy had ever seen a jaw actually drop"?

Attached to the uncorrected proof of this book is a list of "acclaim from the U.K.," where Soft! was called "brilliant" and "gripping." Thomson is a "linguistic acrobat." What novel were these Brits really reading? These reviews are mentioned to suggest that my negative reaction is a Yank thing. After all, there are no British equivalents to Elmore Leonard, let alone James M. Cain. Graham Greene? Please. Case closed. On a national level, there's always the master, Alfred Hitchcock. But movies are movies and books are books. And Soft! is as exciting as its title without the exclamation mark. But we shouldn't write Thomson off. Air & Fire is too admirable a book. Still, this reviewer refuses to elevate some slightly interesting scene (such as one that occurs near the end, when a house cat is set afire) in order to suggest that a novel of such meager merits is worth anyone's time and American money. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Thomson (Air and Fire; The Five Gates of Hell) is a hugely talented but hard-to-classify British writer whose books so far have had little in common beyond their soaring imagination and startling vividness of style. Soft!, which is at once a literary thriller of dazzling velocity and a portrait of contemporary London that invites comparison with the best work of Martin Amis, should win him a much wider readership. There are three principal characters. Barker Dodds, a big, rough man who has worked as a bouncer, leaves provincial Plymouth because the family of a local man thinks Barker killed him; he goes to London to try for a new life, only to find he can't escape a violent past. Glade Spencer is an attractive young waitress with an unpredictable American boyfriend who occasionally sends her airline tickets to visit him, but who otherwise seems to be waiting for something to happen. Jimmy is an upwardly mobile young executive at an American-owned soft-drink company that is about to introduce a new product to the British market; he has a bright -- but ultimately dangerous -- idea to promote it, designed to impress a fearsome American boss. As these three lives improbably interact, Thomson tells a tale that is at once a scary study of consumer culture, a riveting crime story and a novel in which London itself -- its weather, its passers-by, its rooms and its Tube stops-- becomes a contributing character portrayed with a dark poetry. Thomson has created dozens of unforgettable cameos to bring his people to life: Barker's earlier girlfriends; Glade's dazzlingly surreal trips to Miami and New Orleans, her sad visits to her bewildered, abandoned father in a caravan in a remote Lancashire field; Jimmy's anxious flirtations. It is rare to find a book of such headlong readability that is also studded with memorable images of people and places.
Library Journal
The soft drink named in the title is the only thing soft about this ruefully ironic thriller by the young English author of The Insult. When an American beverage company makes plans to introduce its popular Soft! in England, Jimmy Lyle, the UK Senior Brands Manager, concocts an unusual marketing strategy that he sells to Raleigh Connor, a ruthless American manager brought in for the product launch. Connor engages a mysterious German operative named Lambert, and secret plans are put in place to program consumers subliminally into becoming 'ambassadors' for Soft! When the press catches wind of the illegal scheme, and the waiflike Glade Spencer is suspected as the source, Lambert hires Barker Dodds, a young roughneck, to kill her. This dark take on modern business is filled with intriguing, oddly complex characters. -- Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Library Consortium, Andover, Massachusetts
Carolyn See
A very thoughtful novel that only seems like a thriller. -- The Washington Post
Marilyn Stasio
. . .[A] very crafty writer. . .We feel as if we're being pulled in by the ankles. -- The New York Times Book Review
The Times (London)
A compulsive thriller.
Sunday Times, London
Unsettlingly intelligent.
Michiko Kakutani
. .Rupert Thomson's most powerful novel yet. . . .A tight, hypnotic story involving scheming businessmen, ruthless corporate spinmeisters, and ambivalent hit men for hire. . .Imagine Carl Hiaasen & Elmore Leonard teaming up. . .Imagine Quentin Tarantino and Martin Amis collaborating. -- The New York Times
Rob Spillman
A twisted thriller that will keep you turning the pages until 4 a.m. -- Details
Rachel Stoll
A knockout of a literary thriller. . .In Soft, advertising goes where no company has ever taken it before. -- The Oregonian
Kirkus Reviews
A subliminal ad gimmick for a soft drink goes awry in London, and an aging bully boy is enlisted to destroy the evidence—a young waitress—in Thomson's latest dispatch from the hope-abandoned shadow zone he travels so widely and so well (The Insult). Barker wants to leave his troubles behind when he moves from his dreary digs in northwest England to London, but taking work as a barber doesn't pay his bills, so when an unsavory offer comes along (as he knew in his heart it would), he can't really refuse. The woman he's asked to murder, Glade Spencer, is a pretty art-school graduate whose insomnia led her to a 'sleep clinic' that was actually a front for a top-secret, decidedly sinister marketing venture. The corporate handlers of Soft!, an orange-colored and -flavored beverage about to be launched in England, used the clinic to turn people subliminally into 'ambassadors,' little more than walking ads for their product. But the effect of the ploy on Glade was severe: she came unhinged, arousing the suspicions of a friend, who then alerted the press. Before the story can break, however, the marketers employ a little old-fashioned damage control: namely, Barker. What they don't know is that he's sick to death of the mess he's made of his life, and determined not to make it worse. He follows Glade for weeks, watching her and uncertain how to proceed, but when the screws are turned on him he acts. Even at its bleakest, this suggests, more than incarnates, the banality of evil. But a full, unnerving control probes the fraying mental states of the story's doomed and damned from beginning to end; a focus that makes for positively riveting results.

From the Publisher

"A tight, hypnotic story. Imagine Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard teaming up. Imagine Quentin Tarantino and Martin Amis collaborating."- Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"A stone-cold blast, the kind of twisted thriller that will keep you turning the pages until four in the morning."-  Details

"An intense and compulsive thriller. Thomson is a linguistic acrobat... a master of mood and character."-The Times, London

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780375402241
Publisher:
Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date:
08/25/1998
Pages:
307
Product dimensions:
5.99(w) x 8.77(h) x 1.23(d)

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