The Men Can’t Be Saved—Or Can They?
“A great tagline is more infestation than persuasion,” says Seth Taranoff, the immensely quotable 26-year-old advertising copywriter who narrates Ben Purkert’s new novel, The Men Can’t Be Saved. “It swarms the mind like a plague of locusts. It means and means and never stops.”
If that monologue reminds you of Don Draper, there’s a good reason. Sixteen years ago, Purkert started working at an ad agency mere days before Mad Men debuted on AMC. “My friends at the ad agency and I would watch the show, and on Monday mornings we’d talk about the things that had changed from then to now—and the things that hadn’t,” Purkert tells Esquire.
After leaving the industry a few years later, Purkert began writing a 21st-century Catcher in the Rye that examines the “genius” worship and toxic masculinity still dominating the advertising world today. The Men Can’t Be Saved is a muscular novel that’s abrasive and startlingly funny thanks to an unforgettable narrator, Seth, whose Jupiter-sized ego is threatened by the loss of his job and the co-worker he’s having an affair with.
I spoke with Purkert over the phone about “mad men” in the 1960s and the 2000s, toxic masculinity in the workplace, and the cost of defining yourself through your career. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ESQUIRE: When and how did this book start for you?
BEN PURKERT: My first job out of college was working as a tagline copywriter at a branding agency in 2007. The same week I started working there, the TV series Mad Men debuted. My friends at the agency and I would watch the show, and then on Monday mornings we’d talk about the things that had changed from then to now—and the things that hadn’t. So the book began with me trying to make sense of what the ad agency world looks like today—how far it’s come, while at the same time, how little it’s evolved.
What hasn’t changed about the ad industry between the 1960s and today?
On a surface level, some things really haven’t changed. There’s a lot of drinking. There’s a lot of drug use. There’s a lot of misogyny. There’s a lot of ego. There’s also a lot of excitement and electricity. Part of the reason Mad Men works is because, at least sometimes in the boardroom, you’re exhilarated. There’s something thrilling and sexy about the work, so I don’t think that’s changed either.
But there’s something hypocritical about the industry today. A lot of agencies really like to tell a story about how progressive they are, and a show like Mad Men is helpful because I’m not sure that story of progressivism actually bears out. It may be what the ad world is great at producing: a narrative that, if not a lie, is at least at the service of another end.
The Men Can’t Be Saved is a work of fiction, but how much did you draw from your own experiences working at an ad agency?
When I was in client meetings that went south and there was shouting back and forth, I remember filing away those moments and thinking, “You know, this is the sort of drama I would really love to bring to the page.” And then the Great Recession hit the year after I started working there, and it felt like every agency was laying people off. Every day there were more empty desks around me.
More than any other experience, those layoffs really shaped my view of the agency world. Because on a week-to-week basis, I saw people who had largely defined their sense of self around their careers. What happens when that gets taken away? How do you rebrand yourself? It was really a painful and difficult period that left an impression on me, and it factored pretty significantly into my decision to leave that industry.
Do you think it’s better for creative people to work in the field they’re passionate about, or to do something completely different for their day jobs to avoid burnout and disillusionment?
I would never prescribe for someone else, but one thing that can be treacherous about copywriting is that it’s really close to creative writing. When I worked at the agency, my business card didn’t say “copywriter,” it said “creative writer.” I always thought that was really clever on the agency’s part, because it’s precisely what I wanted a business card to say.
When you’re doing copywriting, it feels a lot like creative writing. When you’re producing a tagline, it feels like the title of a short story or a poem. Of course, it’s a completely different exercise—it’s not making art for art’s sake. Which is not to say that someone can’t be artistically fulfilled by their work as a copywriter. Certainly, they can. But I would argue that one is not the other.
Some writers can do copywriting and creative writing simultaneously, and are brilliant at both. That’s just not me. When I was freelance copywriting in grad school [while getting an MFA in creative writing], I struggled to create any creative work that I was proud of. Working as a barista and developing a totally different skill set was useful, because I wanted something very, very far from writing to preserve the creative space I needed.
What’s the danger of letting your job define you to the degree that your main character Seth does?
The U.S. creates a culture where this is largely bound to happen. When you go to other countries and meet someone, rarely is the first question, “What do you do for a living?” Here, that’s almost always where we begin. This idea that we understand the self by understanding a person’s livelihood is foundational to American culture on a certain level. So I don’t think Seth is unusual. A lot of us see our job not just as something we do, but as someone we are.
Is it fair to call this a workplace novel? Were you writing toward that genre?
I wouldn’t say that I was conscious of writing into a particular genre. When the novel decided to move away from Seth’s workplace, I wanted to follow that impulse rather than shoehorn it into a workplace novel. Because he gets laid off, on some level it couldn’t remain a workplace novel. We need to see him flail in open water a little bit.
But one of the books that influenced me was Joshua Ferris‘s Then We Came to the End. I read it when I was at the agency and I felt like he really understood the absurdity of workplace culture in the same way The Office did. The huge drama of the week is not who’s going to get the very big promotion—it’s the fact that you show up to work one day and you’re 96% sure that Joe from Accounting is taking your stapler.
What about calling it a coming-of-age novel?
I think so. Catcher in the Rye is one of those divisive books people either love or hate. I’m on the love side. Someone read my book and said it felt similar in some ways: an arguably unlikeable narrator who’s not entirely clear-minded and is pretty judgy of those around him, who’s flailing and trying to make sense of the world. At first it seemed like a ridiculous comparison; Seth is almost a decade older, and you can’t really compare your own work to a classic by JD Salinger without sounding like an asshole. But I do think it’s a similar coming-of-age story, and what’s happened is that the arrested development phenomenon has shifted.
Seth is 26 in the book, and yes, he’s working as a copywriter and he’s paying his rent and living as an independent adult in the city. But to access his mind is to see that he’s so clearly delayed, and in many ways an adolescent in terms of how he thinks about sex, or in terms of his interpersonal relationships with men, and either wanting power himself or being attracted to power. I would not say that he’s a full-grown adult at all, and when you see where he is at the end of the book, that question of adolescence is pretty present.
Speaking of men, did you encounter a lot of toxic masculinity in the ad industry?
I think it’s in the air they breathe there. But I also think we need to be careful about how we use a phrase like toxic masculinity. It becomes easy to elide the difference between toxicity and masculinity, such that one is at risk of seeming synonymous with the other.
But on the other hand, so much of my experience working in an agency was bearing witness to self-proclaimed male creative geniuses. It was almost like the agency world picked that up from the art world, this idea that if you’re brilliant enough, you can be a monster in the way that you treat employees and speak to clients. It’s like there are these gods in the agency who walk among mortals, and that sort of idolatry is where a lot of bad behavior comes into play.
What about the literary and academic worlds you work in now?
It would be naive to suggest that these things don’t go on in the literary world. We know that absolutely they do. They’re rampant, particularly in certain circumstances. But agency culture may be especially inclined to abuses of power because it brings in the ego of highly accomplished male artists while also being a cutthroat business. They can wear both hats and mask themselves on some level. But your point is well taken. I don’t think that agencies are necessarily the most toxic workplaces. The most toxic is the one where someone is mistreating you in the current moment. I should also say that agencies can be wonderful environments—they can be incredibly supportive and stimulating. I don’t want to paint all agencies with the same brush.
After Seth loses his job at the agency, he’s taken in by an Orthodox rabbi. How does Judaism overlap with the questions of identity and masculinity Seth faces in the novel?
Seth really wants to make partner at the agency. That’s his dream. But I think if he were being a little more honest with himself, he would see that what he really wants is partnership, in the sense of intimacy. We don’t see Seth have a whole lot of friends in this book, and one of the things I’m interested in about masculinity is how do men not just make but maintain relationships over the course of their lives?
I think that’s a real challenge for a lot of men. I’m 38. I had more friends at 28, but we don’t often talk about that. Religion can promise to address that need. In the synagogue where I grew up, part of becoming a bar mitzvah is you can become part of a brotherhood. That step in your development has the potential to bring you closer to certain rituals and to certain men within the Jewish community. So when Seth gets involved with Chabad, is it an attempt to define himself more as a Jew? Or is it more out of a human need for brotherhood? That’s the question, and it’s up to the reader.
Did you come across any men like Seth in the advertising world?
I think Seth is sort of singular. I didn’t work with Seth, and I would like to think that I’m not Seth, but during the process of writing and revising the novel, one of the things that became clear is that Seth needed to care about this job a lot. He needed to really invest himself wholly in his work, so that when he’s laid off, we as the reader feel like it’s a massive loss. Not just a loss in terms of his financial stability, but also a loss of something really integral to him that’s been excised. Can he recover from that blow and rebrand himself? That’s the largest question that motivates the book.
What was the hardest thing about writing this novel?
My background is copywriting professionally and then in poetry on the creative side. I’d never written fiction before. The biggest challenge for me was scale. When you write a tagline, that’s usually six words max. Most of my poems are under a page. The idea of writing something that’s 70 or 80 thousand words… it was just so much clay. I wasn’t sure I was equipped to shape it. So I wrote the first draft very quickly, in coffee-fueled ecstatic bursts over the course of a couple of months, but then I spent almost a decade rewriting and revising.
Where did the title The Men Can’t Be Saved come from?
It scared me as a title. I’m someone who isn’t prone to big declarations like that. I’m like a neurotic Jew living in the New York City area, so I’m more prone to hedging and saying something and then immediately retracting it. “The Men Can’t Be Saved” sounds like something inscribed on a tablet in the hands of Moses. I was afraid of it, but sometimes as a writer, you want to push toward that fear.
You go on a journey with Seth and [his male co-worker] Moon—their relationship is really the heart of the book—and then when you get to the last page, the question you have to ask yourself is, have these two characters sought redemption and are they deserving of it? You and I might arrive at different answers, but I’d be interested to know how you got there.