Despite their terrible covers, I picked up these three short stories from Audible Originals because I was intrigued by the concept of In-depth Market Research Interviews With Dead People. It also helped that they were free and they were short. It turned out that they were also very good.
The concept that binds the three stories is more than a little bizarre: an unnamed interviewer asks market research questions of dead people on behalf of famous brands. There is no consideration of how this is done or why. We just roll with it. If you can manage that, the rest will be fine.
The stories are all told entirely through the interviewer’s questions and the interviewee’s responses. The interviewer remains focussed on gathering data about the interviewee’s reactions to the brand; why they bought it, what they liked about it, what other brands they considered, and whether their purchase was in any way responsible for their death. From time to time she uses polite expressions of interest or regret to demonstrate active listening before bringing the interview back on track but she never shows any real empathy or engagement. The dead interviewees do their best to answer the market research questions but, as they reflect on their decisions, motivations and reactions, they uncover cathartic insights into their lives that weren’t available to them before they died.
This is the kind of concept that sounds great when discussing potential writing projects over a few beers but which is in danger of devolving from clever idea into irritating deceit unless the writer has something worth saying. Alison Espach rose to the challenge and presented me with three accidental self-portraits that I found fascinating.
Each of the characters goes through the kind of process of energising self-discovery, connecting them to the truth of the passions and sorrows of their lives in the way that good therapy sessions are supposed to. Watching this happen was unexpectedly moving. an emotional response that was amplified by the interviewer’s dispassionate disregard for the real content of the interview which left me wanting to say ‘What is wrong with you? Can’t you see what this means for this person?‘
The first story I read was the interview with a young woman about her purchase of an expensive Tempur-Pedic bed. Over the course of the interview, the young woman explains how she came to buy the bed after she dropped out of college and moved in with her former professor, a man who insists on sleeping on the floor. As she comes to understand his reasons for sleeping on the floor and what that means for their relationship, the choice to buy the bed becomes a symbol of her deep and mostly unfulfilled need for comfort and for being cherished for who she was. It’s a sad story, made less so by the young woman’s delight at finally being able to see what had been going on in her life.
I read the Volvo story next. As I drive a Volvo, I wondered what I was letting myself in for. What would it turn out that the Volvo symbolised? The interviewer’s opening question let me know I was in for an interesting time:
“If you had known that you were going to die within two years, would you still have bought a Volvo?”
It’s a more important question than it sounds. The woman and her husband have always bought Volvos. They’re safe and reliable and when you’ve found something that works, why buy something else? Analysing her choice of a Volvo becomes a way for the woman to reassess her life and her marriage and think about what she got from each and whether that was what she had wanted. In the middle, there is a story of test-driving a sports car that gave her a taste of what might have been and changed the meaning of her future choices. I loved the interviewee’s voice in this. I thought that I’d come to know her in the hour that I listened to her and I regretted the loss of all the things her death had put an end to.
The final interview was about Bounty kitchen towels, which had me wondering how on earth kitchen towels could be symbolic of anything. It turns out, that in the right hands, they can be the touchstone for understanding a marriage. This time the interview was with a wife and husband who died together. As they answer the market research questions, the couple discuss and contest their answers with each other and each tries to show to the interviewer (who really doesn’t care) that their version of the marriage is the right one and that they are the aggrieved party. I found this to be the saddest tale of the three. This couple still love one another, yet their marriage has been failing for some time and neither of them had been able to talk about it or change it, leaving them to become increasingly isolated and unhappy, quietly grieving for what they have lost. What does all that have to do with Bounty kitchen towels? Everything – but you’ll have to read the story to find that out.