A few weeks back I was lucky enough to meet the E Man for a coffee. So a proper feature/interview is coming soon. But for now here is a little book report on the long-awaited sequel.
For those that haven’t read E (who are you and what have you been doing all these years???), it is a novel told entirely in emails, cleverly woven together. The book centres around one Miller Shanks, an ad agency riddled with incompetence and Machievellian bitchiness. It first came out ten years ago, it’s practically course literature at most ad schools, and it’s bloody funny.
The first thing you notice when you read E² is the difference in scope. The thing about E was that Beaumont had a strict curfew he had to stick to. The story would grind to a halt every Friday afternoon, only to resume again Monday at 9am. And the locations were restricted to the office. Now, because of the mobile revolution, the characters aren’t desk-bound anymore. As Beaumont puts it, it’s now a ‘24 hour novel.’
In E² Beaumont’s canvas extends across all the online media you can think of. Although oddly there’s no Facebook. While the book itself is being marketed through a fictional Meerkat360 Facebook page, for some reason the media of the FB update is missing from the novel. But it’s got everything else. eBay, blog posts and comments, BBC website pages, MSN chat and so on.
Aside from his ingenious weaving of all these different nodes, there are some great little quirky details in the ad agency, Meerkat 360, many of which were slightly inspired by Matt’s time working at M & C Saatchi, where he is still working now.
– The Creative departments have their own beach huts to retreat to. These actually exist at M & C:
– There is an in-house clown at the Creatives’ disposal. This, Matt says, was inspired by the day Graham Fink sent an email around the agency to announce a new resident Musician. (I misheard Matt and thought he’d said Magician, which actually would have been fun too), but anyway, this was the trigger in Beaumont’s mind for, ‘what is the most ridiculous thing you can hire for the creatives.’ So that’s how he ended up with a hairdresser and Mr Fraggles the clown. He thought about a Sports Psychologist too, but maybe that will appear in the next one.
– There is a musician, Yossi Mendoza, who performs a ‘Jinglonia’ – a ‘reinterpretation of classic advertising jingles, the life-enriching…musical vignettes that remain embedded deep in our psyches.’ On the billing is ‘A finger of fudge’, ‘It’s the Milky Bar Kid’ and other hits. I wish this would happen in real life (would have been a good stunt for the book’s launch, maybe?). Although I did hear Air on a G String played recently at St. Martins in the Field, which was kind of a similar experience but in reverse…
There are other gem-like moments, like when he crosses into real life by writing about the real people working at Transworld Publishers who become embroiled in one of the storylines. (Although they weren’t too happy about their cameos, apparently!)
As before though, what really shines throughout is the way he tells his story. What’s so great is the way he can be so economical with the details, letting you fill in the blanks in your head. For instance, we have an email from Janice to David where she says something to wind him up. Then the next email is one from David’s PA, saying about how she’s clearing up another smashed cafetiere. What’s so fun about this mode of storytelling is that he doesn’t need to spell it out for us. There are gaps, but just like with the most effective ads, we can complete the circle in our heads.
Another moment I really liked was when Liam is on the bridge, writing really poignant things but using the medium of broken text-speak. It’s especially bittersweet when, at the crucial point, his credit limit is exceeded and it cuts out. Beaumont said of this passage then when he was writing it, it was very long and drawn out. He wrote it much longer at first, but then cut it right down to make it more real and immediate. The result is really effective.
There was only one thing I wondered about. When he’s describing all the different thefts from the stationery cupboard in various emails, I couldn’t help feeling that we didn’t always need to follow these up with the corresponding eBay entry. Although it’s funny that everything in the office was being stolen and put on eBay, I couldn’t help wondering whether, once you’d got the joke, whether every single corresponding eBay entry was necessary. After a while it’s quite fun to imagine the entry. It was sort of spelling it out. But then, as Nat pointed out, the eBay postings are so amusingly written that they’re well worth it in that sense.
Anyway, all in all it’s a great sequel, well worth a read. It’s also worth checking out the ‘meerkats’ at twitter.com/meerkat360 and
http://www.Meerkat360.co.uk first, just to acquaint yourself with the characters first. Beaumont wrote the copy himself. And he reckons the designer took inspiration from Glue’s website. But I can’t see much similarity. (Update: They are running a competition; they’re asking readers to e-mail their embarrassing office e-mail stories and the most cringe-worthy will win £100 worth of iTunes vouchers.)
Beaumont has said that the reason he waited so long to do a sequel was that he was waiting for things to change enough for it to be interesting. Well, ten years on, the technology is unrecognizable. And he’s made the most of those changes. It’s fun (and a little scary) to imagine what another sequel would be like, should there be an E³ in 2020.