Published in the Sunday Times
In the world of Tammy Baikie’s debut novel, Selling LipService, language is a commodity and a source of control. After the coming of haemhorr-age at around 18 years old, people can only speak if they’re wearing LipService transdermal patches, sponsored by corporations and scripted by copywriters so that the wearer’s every utterance promotes a brand.
The protagonist, Frith, experiences tastures – a sort of synaesthesia, whereby she experiences a taste with everything she touches. In addition, she has been introduced to literature by her father, who works in the repository where books are quarantined (they are no longer available to the public). She is eager to hold onto these meaningful experiences and escape the constraints of branded communication. She wants to silence “You” – the patch’s brand persona and her conformist alter ego – and to speak for herself. The plot deals with Frith’s attempt to circumvent the powers who control language in this consumerist society and to exercise her own voice outside of the brand babble.
Baikie is multilingual – German, French, Russian – and works as a translator, which she describes as a kind of ventriloquism. “It’s bizarre. You know you ‘wrote’ the words, but you are speaking for someone else.” This idea of speaking for someone else was the spark for this very original book.
It is oddly apt that we meet to talk about a book about language and the power that comes from defining how we talk about things on a day when the news is full of the language manipulations of Bell Pottinger and WMC and fake Twitter. “People don’t realise how carefully words are selected by PR and ad agencies,” says Baikie. “I notice it, too, when I listen to talk radio. A select vocabulary will be used around an issue or event and it is quite eerie to hear how those words come to be mimicked.”
Baikie thinks deeply about language, and the novel considers it in its many forms – as communication, as advertising copy, as art form; as a means of control or commerce or human connection. This is a big concept work, unusual and thought-provoking around those issues. And yes, you follow Frith’s struggle for speech and agency and connection. But for many readers the delight in this book is in the author’s inventive use of words themselves.
The commercial-speak of the LipService wearers, and the inner workings of Frith’s mind, provide rich opportunities for wordplay and the creation of words. Portmanteau, the melding of two words, is a key mechanism and something which Baikie notes is having a resurgence in our own era, with words like “frenemies” or “Brangelina” (which she calls “those celebrity shmoosh names”). She plays with verlan, a form of French slang which transposes syllables. Or she will retain the recognisable shape of an idiom, but swop out a word. It’s an ambitious high-wire act that at its best is quite thrilling for word nerds.
One wonders at the author’s seemingly endlessly linguistic manipulations. She puts it down to her training in and obsession with languages. “I’ve spent years of my life learning vocabulary. I read widely, mostly foreign authors, and have a taste for slightly weird stuff. Some of this has been useful in this book. I have hundreds of scraps of paper with word lists, lists of synonyms, rhymes, created words that I’ve fiddled with, putting them together…”
Here’s an example, in which a copywriter speaks: “Given the choice, focus groups prefered a whip-sharp quip to the old ad-lib. They like being able to twinpoint members of their own social tribe.”
Selling LipService was the winner of the 2015/16 Dinaane Debut Fiction Award. Anyone who loves books and words and wordplay, or is fascinated by the power of language, will find this book intriguing and often entertaining. You can be fairly certain you’ve read nothing else like it.
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- Selling Lip Service by Tammy Baikie
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