If You Give the Job Your Heart and Soul, You Might Lose Both
Ben Purkert’s novel "The Men Can’t Be Saved" incisively portrays the ways toxic masculinity pervades in capitalist spaces
At the start of Ben Purkert’s debut novel, The Men Can’t Be Saved, the protagonist Seth’s copywriting campaign goes viral. It feels enough like success that Seth begins to earnestly refer to himself as an “oracle” and rewatches the resulting ad routinely, treating it like a pump that continues to inflate his already buoyant ego. His ballooning sense of self-confidence only bursts when he’s fired from his job. Without being able to lose himself in the comfort of corporate speak or the sureness in identity that a job at RazorBeat has granted him, Seth begins to spiral out of control, turning to women, to substances, to words, and to religion in an attempt to find meaning, without ever really knowing—or seeing—himself for who he truly is.
With a poet’s incisive language and humor that delightfully punctures Seth’s narration of his own life, Purkert offers a deeply felt, compelling portrayal of the ways that toxic masculinity pervades in capitalist spaces, and asks questions like: How much of our identities are tied to our work? Is true reformation possible, and what happens to our selves when attempts at healing go awry? Where do we find meaning in our lives?
I talked over Zoom with Purkert about toxic masculinity, fictionalizing his copywriting job, how capitalism intersects with making art, and what true redemption might look like.
Jacqueline Alnes: I feel like we have to start with Seth. At the start of the novel he is overconfident, entitled, self-centered, and he thrives in the corporate copywriting world, in part because of those traits. How did he take shape and what did you learn from writing from his perspective?
Ben Purkert: I’ve always been attracted to the absurd character who has an over-inflated sense of self. I think part of why I go to fiction is because I want to spend time with someone who is a little ridiculous, who doesn’t see themselves entirely clearly. It’s funny, you say that Seth thrives in the corporate environment but, because it’s in the first person, I think it’s an open question. Is Seth the wunderkind that he thinks he is? Or is he sort of a fuck-up from the start? We don’t really know. I’m excited to think that different readers can land on a different answer there. Was this a fall from grace or was there never really any branch to begin with?
JA: I should clarify that by “thrive in the corporate world,” he definitely thinks he’s thriving. Do I think he is? I don’t know.
BP: Having worked in advertising, thinking you’re thriving in the business world is a huge part of thriving in the business world. Do you watch Succession?
JA: Oh my god, yes.
BP: I don’t want to draw a comparison because Seth is his own character and Kendall Roy is his own character, but watching Succession, one of the things I was interested in was like, is Kendall terrible at this? Or is he sometimes actually really good at it? It seems like when Kendall believes his own shit, that meaningfully impacts his performance for the better. Faking it until you make it is an alarmingly large part of the gig, I think.
JA: I think it’s also where you get a front row seat to the ways that toxic masculinity and capitalism are best pals, in some sense. The foil of Josie—who is a woman in the workplace and has to negotiate herself, her body, the way she pitches ideas entirely differently—to Seth is interesting.
BP: When I worked in branding as a copywriter, it felt like there were two camps. There were the people who thought it was bullshit and then there were the people who were deeply invested in the work. It’s not as if one did better at the job than the other. Josie, I think, realizes more than Seth ever could that we’re all playing a game here. Brands don’t really change the world. They don’t even necessarily change the product; they’re just sort of a shell. Her awareness arguably frees her up to be better at the job, versus someone like Seth who really buys in that what he’s doing matters. When it all goes south for him, it’s more crushing.
JA: I love the way that you work that line of believing in something versus not, especially related to language. I felt like at some points you were toying with the idea that language is this optical illusion. Sometimes we can believe in it and then in other moments you skewer that when a character realizes it’s bullshit. I know you worked as a copywriter and are a poet, so I wondered what you thought about related to language within the form of this novel?
BP: Being a copywriter and being a creative writer are almost identical on a surface level. A tagline assignment is the best poetry prompt you could ever ask for. In three to six words, create a line that immediately evokes emotion in people, that has a whole bunch of double meanings. That’s a great prompt to give a creative writing class. But it misses something essential, which is the heart, the soul, the art. At the end of the day, I think of a line of copywriting as a kind of soulless poetry. I don’t want to disrespect or dishonor the work of copywriting; I have great respect for people who have a far greater talent than I do for it, and I think it can be a really meaningful, rewarding career for a lot of folks—but for me, it felt awfully dangerous. It took all the things I loved about poetry and it stripped them of the essential thing.
When I see an ad on TV or when I’m on the bus and I see a tagline, I love working the math backward and thinking about the creative brief that led to it or what competitor they are trying to go after. In The Men Can’t Be Saved, I talk about “i’m lovin’ it,” the McDonald’s tagline, and the lack of capitalization of that “i”––I talk about it for a paragraph, but I would love to write an entire thing about it. It’s so fascinating to me. Who are they trying to appeal to, with that informality? It’s interesting the face that a brand will wear, as if a teenager in a boardroom came up with it. It’s almost surely some sixty-year-old white guy who came up with that line, not native to his voice at all. And what are the ethical implications of a brand that tries to talk like someone that they’re not?
JA: I never thought about the parallels between poetry and copywriting before. Do you think some of the difference comes from the fact that copywriting is for something outside of you whereas poetry is for you or of you? It seems like there’s an external measure of worth in copywriting, whereas poetry seems like it might come from more of an internal measure of beauty?
BP: I think so. The desire to make good art in copywriting can be a legitimate goal, but it absolutely is secondary to the primary goal, which is to sell more product. When you write a poem, who knows where that impulse comes from? That mystery is sort of the poeminess of the poem, in my opinion.
I think, and this could get us off on a major tangent, but the line is blurred when you’re talking about art on commission. The mayor’s office asks the poet laureate to write a haiku commemorating the new gazebo in town. Where does that fall? I think that’s an interesting question I haven’t quite answered, but I also don’t have a lot of mayors commissioning me to write shit so thankfully I haven’t had to wrestle with the complications or questions around some of that. I do think part of the joy of art and of creative writing, at least for me, is that it’s not in service of a product or a campaign. It is its own thing.
JA: While reading, big layoffs happened at media corporations and I was thinking about how, when people don’t have jobs that allow for creative thinking or safety, then what happens to our art, our thinking, and our identity? We are in these piecemeal systems where people are trying to sell scraps of art or writing for money. That too affects Seth in some fundamental way.
BP: I started working as a copywriter in 2007. Months into the job, the recession hit. Advertising, branding, marketing, these industries just got killed. Theirs were often the first budgets slashed. I can remember coming into work and it was like oh, Joe is gone. Or, Kathleen they flipped to freelance. It was a really bleak and painful time. It shaped my worldview of the whole industry, and I think it comes across in the book. But then, for many years, the industry rebounded strongly. I even began to wonder, Are people going to be able to relate to layoffs or is the whole premise of the book going to feel dated? And then, of course, we arrived in an economic downturn, because all of this stuff is cyclical.
I started writing the book almost a decade ago. It was pre-Trump presidency, pre-MeToo, and so one of the things that’s been interesting for me to see is how the book has a lot to say about both of those things, even though it pre-dates them. It’s wild how a novel or a poem or a play arrives in a moment outside of itself, but then is asked to speak to that moment and often has really valuable things to say.
JA: The title of this book, The Men Can’t Be Saved, obviously hints at this idea of redemption, and we see different characters reach for things—substances, religion, family—in order to find relief from their pain, though these attempts rarely lead to any meaningful reckoning with reality. What did you think about the idea of “saving” when you were writing, or what came up around the idea of redemption for you?
BP: I think we are living in a moment where it’s understood that toxic masculinity exists and that toxic men exist. Then the question becomes well, what do we do with that? Where do we go from there? What do we deem redeemable versus what is not redeemable? What does redemption look like? What does rehabilitation look like? What does reparation look like? I’m interested in these questions, both in terms of men writ large but also individual men who make bad choices.
Specifically on the point of salvation, I come from an interfaith household. My mom is Jewish, as am I. My father, on the other hand, is Catholic. On Saturday, when I was growing up, my mom would go to synagogue; then, on Sunday, my dad would go to church. And it was an interesting experience to grow up in that kind of environment, where two parents are pursuing two different spiritual existences. It made me think a lot about the desire for salvation, in all its forms.
When I began writing the book, I knew it was a workplace novel about the advertising and branding world, its hypocrisies and its joys and its messes. But then it very much turned into a novel about practicing the Jewish faith and what it means to seek redemption. The Men Can’t Be Saved felt like the right handle to encompass both.
JA: In thinking about religion, to me, it can sometimes seem like relief from the world we’re living in. There is a set of rules. There is language you can lean on. Those religious parts made me think a lot about where we derive our meaning from, especially when our work might not allow for meaning or when we realize that the things we thought had meaning are actually hollow. What happens then?
BP: Well, brands are interesting in that regard, because they’re hollow by definition. If you think about what a brand literally is, it’s a label. It’s an exterior mark. It lives on the surface and no deeper. And if the work of branding takes place on that same plane, faith is a much deeper thing, or at least we hope it is. It certainly claims to be.
JA: What will you carry with you after writing this book?
BP: I learned a lot from my main character. Seth is someone who cannot see himself; that’s both the tragedy of him and the comedy of him. And, in the process of writing Seth, I began to ask myself: Okay, Ben, what do you maybe not see about yourself? What are you willfully blind to? If you were able to see yourself more clearly, how might you change? How might you grow? How might you be kinder to others and to yourself? Those are questions that continue to sit with me long after the novel’s last page.