At the end of 2015, here’s something to think about: the year’s most cartoonish capitalist villain, Martin Shkreli, has never succeeded at anything. If the federal indictment against him is to be believed, he has failed miserably in every attempt he’s made at fund management. His entire professional life has been an ongoing case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, of starting new ventures in an attempt to pay off the debts generated by the failure of the previous ones.
And yet, until last week, Shkreli was considered a success, whatever his ethics — a man rich enough to drop $2 million on an album because he wanted it, a man cashed-up (and desperate) enough to offer his ex $10,000 to eat her out. His rags-to-riches story — he’s the son of two immigrant Albanian janitors — would be a perfect American trajectory if he wasn’t so inept. We see it now for what it is — the story of a man so desperate to fit in and be liked that his ego allegedly led him to defraud investors and has now left him facing a lengthy jail sentence.
Shkreli only got caught because he wasn’t even especially good at being a criminal; his “scheme” was laughably simple when set out on paper. How many more are there out there like him, covering their tracks a little better, being a little less ostentatious, making sure not to be so flamboyantly odious that they demand (and court) the attention of the world? You might argue that, well, c’mon, Shkreli is essentially a confidence trickster, and you’d be right — he’s the product of a system that actively encourages people who are exactly that. Capitalism has always been about the ability to talk a good game, but nearly a decade removed from the Global Financial Crisis, it’s so abstracted from reality that it’s played out in a realm that has virtually nothing to do with the lives you and I lead.
The entire spectacle is absurd, and not just in the sense that it’s sort of bitterly hilarious. It’s absurd in the strictly philosophical sense, too — in the respect that we are attempting to apply linear narratives and derive meaning from a world whose very nature denies this. Capitalism doesn’t create narratives, and never has; narratives are constructed retroactively to lend moral worth to the deeds of those who do succeed (or “succeed”). Walt Disney was a shitty person. William Randolph Hearst may or may not have killed someone. Etc.
So it’s always gone with the rich and powerful, and with capitalism as a whole. But in 2015, there’s a key difference. Millennials are the first generation for whom capitalism can’t promise a brighter future. The American Dream has always worked as a narrative because there’s always been someone — and preferably several prominent people — who lived it. Its allure was always that, hey, it could be you that hits the jackpot. This allowed capitalism to be narrated as meritocracy, despite the fact that the odds have always been stacked in the favor of those already winning. But in 2015, what does capitalism offer the generation that stands to inherit it? A warming planet, political instability, a mountain of debt, crumbling infrastructure, and an abiding sense that their parents’ generation has already had the best of everything. What’s the point of having a fancy house in Los Angeles if you can’t water the lawn?
There’s a growing and ever-more-visible divide between the world capitalism wants us to think we live in and the one we do live in. Politicians continue to lecture us on hard work as a virtue, despite the fact that an economy centered around work becomes ever less viable and more unnecessary as the population grows but the work necessary to sustain it decreases. We are still told that America is the greatest country in the world, a narrative looks ever more indefensible with every passing year.
Perhaps the most perfect example of this is the circus sideshow that is the race for the Republican nomination. We’re meant to believe that, whatever their virtues, the candidates are successful businesspeople. In reality, they include 2015’s other walking capitalist headline, Donald Trump — a man whose reputation as a businessman is rather undermined by the fact that he’d have more cash if he’d just retired 30 years ago and dumped his inheritance into an unmanaged fund — along with a woman who was a manifest and dismal failure as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, the scion of a rich political family (whose business career makes for, um, interesting reading), several career lobbyists, and a man who thinks the Pyramids were grain silos.
In view of all this, it’s perhaps no wonder that culture in 2015 leaned ever further toward full-blown absurdism. One of the year’s most affecting TV shows, for instance, was an animation starring an anthropomorphic horse and featured, among other things, three small children in a trench coat approximating a businessman (and the kicker? No one noticed the difference). The year’s best animated movie, Inside Out, was a surrealist meditation on neuroscience and psychology. Its most-discussed book had such an impact because it was an oddity — in a year of closed eyes, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me refused to look away, and was all the more powerful for doing so.
Beyond pop culture, a sense of absurdism surfaced in the most unlikely places — remember, for instance, the New York Daily News cover that borrowed the visual language of the Internet to mock anyone who was upset by their pro-gun control covers?
The use of quintessentially Internet imagery here is no accident, because as ever, the most absurd place of all the place most abstracted from reality. The Internet has been getting weird for years, and in 2015, weirdness went mainstream: in particular, The Onion’s spinoff Clickhole evolved from a pretty competent Buzzfeed parody into an entirely different beast, and in doing so, captured perfectly the spirit of being online in 2015. Clickhole takes Internet culture, which has always flirted with absurdism, and magnifies it to such extremes that the content, such as it was, is often entirely nonsensical — and yet, the satire remains clear. It’s so ridiculous that it makes perfect sense.
Which brings us to the man who captured the spirit of 2015 better than any other. Step forward… Chuck Tingle, a mysterious author of surrealist gay erotica who may or may not be a tae kwon do expert living in Billings, Montana. If the likes of Trump and Shkreli embodied the absurd, circa 2015, then Tingle captured it better than anyone. He is a quintessentially 2015 phenomenon, and one born of the Internet. His debut story was self-published last December as an e-book on Amazon (which remains the only place his work has appeared), but by the time the Internet caught on, 2014 was already in the past. His works are hyper culturally aware (various stories reference the dress, the Starbucks coffee cup “controversy,” and the Kardashians, all of which are examples of absurdism in their own right).
I’m not going to delve too deeply into the semiotics of works like, ahem, My Billionaire Triceratops Craves Gay Ass, but there are a couple of notable things about Tingle’s work. First, it is absurdist in the most glorious sense of the world — Tingle’s world is populated by randy gay dinosaurs, gay bigfoots, and, well, more gay dinosaurs. It’s hard to believe there’s not some sort of postmodernist sense of humor at play here — after all, we’re talking about a man who is the author of *deep breath* Pounded in the Butt By My Own Butt, Pounded in the Butt By My Book ‘Pounded in the Butt By My Own Butt’ and, yes, Pounded in the Butt by My Book ‘Pounded in the Butt by My Book “Pounded in the Butt By My Own Butt.”’ This is what postmodernism is for.
Beyond the sheer joy of the fact that we now live in a world where Lewis Carroll writes gay erotica, Tingle’s work also functions as a satire of, yes, capitalism — when his characters aren’t iterations of his own butt, they’re largely mega-rich corporate types who may or may not be dinosaurs. Martin Shkreli makes an appearance, because of course he does, along with an anthropomorphic Learjet (I’m Gay for My Living Billionaire Jet Plane), the world of high-end viticulture (Bigfoot Sommelier Butt Tasting), and… Donald Trump (President Donald Loch Ness Trump Pounds America’s Butt).
Tingle himself remains an elusive figure; his interviews read as much like absurdist performance art as his stories, and as far as I’m aware, no one has met the man in person. And yet, his books are a pop culture phenomenon — not on the level of Fifty Shades of Grey, admittedly, but he’s surely the most successful author of gay dinosaur erotica that the world has ever seen. He might not be the most important writer of 2015, but I suspect that in ten years’ time — if we’re not all farmers eking out a living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland by then — if someone asks me about this particular year in culture, I might well answer, “Well, there was this guy called Chuck Tingle…”
And if they ask why, I’ll say something to the effect of what I’ve said above: that in 2015, we went about our business in the Potemkin village of capitalism, and we did our best to carry on as if nothing was wrong, and if that‘s not the height of absurdity, then what is? We lived with a sort of latent, low-level despair over our chances of ever changing that system, at least until it had sailed itself — and everyone who whose lives depended on it — into the rocks. And if the ship is going down anyway, why shouldn’t there be a gay triceratops at the helm? It beats Donald Trump.
This piece is part of Flavorwire’s series of essays on 2015 in culture. Click here to follow our end-of-year coverage.