Same Same, by Peter Mendelsund

If anyone could work out the precise formula for productive creativity would never have to worry about money every again–or for their children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, etc. etc. But one has to wonder, especially after reading Same Same by Peter Mendelsund (or seen Hollywood’s lineup for the last several years), if devising a formula wouldn’t strip the life out of whatever the mass produced artists came up with. In this strange, constantly morphing novel, Percy Frobisher arrives at the Freehold, an experimental artists’ community. Percy arrives with a vague plan to create something and a drug habit. This art makes sense. Subsequent events get distinctly surreal.

As soon as he arrives at Freehold, Percy begins to take stock of his new environment. Freehold is an elaborately landscaped dome in the middle of an unnamed desert. Everything the residents want will be provided, so long as they always wear their uniforms and make progress on their projects. There are poets, various species of artists, data analysts, archaeologists, philosophers, and others, all working on elaborate, highly conceptual work that might only be comprehensible to people with very specialized PhDs. The residents must also attend group sessions, document their progress, and give a Discourse™. In the group sessions and in Percy’s interactions with the other residents, I saw that all of the residents seem to have the same problem. They have gone so deep into their minds that they’ve lost the ability to communicate with others. They also can’t stop digging. One artist, who labels things for their project, noticed that the labels needed labels—a train of though that will clearly lead no where sensible.

As Same Same progresses (unlike the artists at Freehold), disturbing events occur and equally disturbing themes arise. Percy sees a strange attack that no one will talk about. The director and the admins hound Percy for progress. The other residents seem to be sliding further off kilter. Perhaps most unsettling of all is that it all seems terribly futile. Creativity can’t be forced. If anyone tries, they just end up with incomprehensible nonsense. And copying anyone’s method strips the life and soul out of the work.

Just when I thought I was getting the hang of Same Same, events fall even further into chaos. Percy’s drug habit gets worse. The other residents act even more strangely. Freehold starts to collapse under the weight of heat, sand, and curiously purposeful paper. The only way to understand this part, I think, is to read it metaphorically—a strategy that works very well as I started to wonder just how reliable Percy is as a narrator. Anyone who wants to know who Percy really is and what Freehold actually is will have to read Same Same themselves.

Same Same is a challenge to read, but fascinating. It’s definitely the sort of book I would want to read with other English majors because there is so much to pick apart and talk about. It’s got so many layers that I’m sure one reading doesn’t do this book justice. This is one of the smartest books I’ve read in a long time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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