“How long will it take for him to descend into self-parody?” Stanley Bing asks 10 pages into his epically meaningless 300-page meditation on the art of corporate bullshitting. The answer is: Not very long. If Mr. Bing could back off a bit from his hideous self-consciousness, or have more fun with such an easily fun subject, this disposable little work would be as smoothly readable as his back-page columns for Fortune. Instead, it’s riddled with half-hearted clowning, bewildering mood swings (earnestness then irony then disdain then wistfulness) and a gruesome epidemic of exclamation points.
For a writer who revels in gunning down slow-moving targets (hookers, handwriting analysts, Paris Hilton), Mr. Bing has outstanding respect for his book’s subject matter. His introduction walks us through info on the global practitioners of professional BS, then pops the Big Idea: “Guess what? They’re having fun, making a living, and enjoying their lives, perhaps more than you.”
Sure, he lays down some prickly zingers on allergists and agents, but he kids because he loves! After all, these folks “enjoy the best lives imaginable,” getting big respect and big money from little effort.
Mr. Bing’s starry-eyed account of bullshit’s wonders (“This is art! Feel it with your gut!”) is often unfunny and rarely convincing. A serious weakness for exclamation makes it particularly hard to tell when he’s joking (“lace ’em up and do it!”). Would it matter one way or the other? As Princeton’s Harry G. Frankfurt’s shrewd treatise On Bullshit (2005) concludes: “[S]incerity itself is bullshit.”
Whether sincere or ironic or neither or both, the joke can only be on Mr. Bing when he opens his work with an Aristotelian axiom, then analyzes Beowulf, then describes Thomas Wolfe’s novels as “flaccid, egoistical lumps of prose.” Look who’s talking.
Though he mentions Mr. Frankfurt, Mr. Bing declares that defining bullshit “turns out to be difficult.” (Indeed, it would be hard to pinpoint a meaning that stings the hated perpetrators without insulting the broader art.) And yet he later ventures a description of BS as the difference between happiness and misery, succinctly delineating the first (George Stephanopoulos) from the second (Anderson Cooper).
Not shockingly, Mr. Bing’s methodical breakdown of bullshit falls short of his introduction’s mathematical aspirations. Thus the construction-site flag waver (Job No. 26) somehow comes to represent bullshit at its “most aggressive and … satisfying.” Mr. Bing’s, unfortunately, is neither.
The book’s 100 entries blithely inform us on how to enter each profession, its pay, downsides, the skills required and oh so much more—including well-calculated Bullshit Quotients and Borscht Belt routines on famous examples. Here, Mr. Bing has an awful habit of segueing (“not long ago,” “a few years back”) into overweight anecdotes on the issues at hand. We’re constantly told that names have been changed, which nicely reminds us that the onomatopoeic “Bing” is—surprise!—a pseudonym.
His Fortune staff biography (not to mention his write-up at the Greater Talent Network speaker bureau) tells us the man is “an ultra-haute executive vice president at a huge multinational corporation.” There’s no kind of haute like ultra-haute.
Mr. Bing fondly alludes to his significant day job, rattling off a “mind-bogglingly enormous conglomerate” here and a “veritable titan of industry” there.
But like The Office’s wisecracking David Brent, Mr. Bing doggy-paddles in the choppy waters between straight-laced corporate expertise and slapstick satire. It can get ugly, as in awkward invectives against bloggers (Gawker, Drudge and McSweeney’s are lassoed together), hip-hop posses (50 Cent is “Fif”), postmodern art (Jeff Koons is “interesting, not edifying”) and, sadly, divorce lawyers.
Mr. Bing also has Brent’s painful indelicacies. The ceaseless repetition of the book’s scatological keyword gets unseemly: First it’s “pungent,” then “mung,” then “chicken salad out of chicken shit.”
Considering his willingness to put together phrases like “self-important claptrap” (Job No. 1: Advertising Executive), Mr. Bing seems oblivious to his tireless ego. He cutely role-plays as old-school sexist (equating managerial and sexual powers) and homophobe (warning agents against those that “take it up the butt”). His fearless tirade against critics even recounts that “my friend Stanley” hit a New York Times writer after a bad review. Bing! As the man says himself, when it’s impossible to be funny, hateful often suffices.
But even these silliest sucker-punches would be forgivable if the pugilist seemed to be having more fun. (Exclamation points do not count as fun.) Mr. Bing makes so many references to his advances and his agent and his editor and his publisher that it’s no surprise when “Writer of This Book” clocks in at Job No. 96, though it’s thankfully awarded a minimal Bullshit Quotient.
Mr. Bing describes his work as “funny” and “trenchant,” but more cringe-worthy (and pragmatic) is his sales pitch to potential book buyers “reading this while standing up in an airport bookstore.”
Will businessmen bite? It’s hard to imagine that the powerful professional friends of Stanley Bing (his real name is Gil Schwartz) will split their sides on jokes about hairiness and vice presidents. As the slick American attorney tells the slick Helen Mirren in The Long Good Friday: “It’s not a good idea to bullshit us.”
Maybe that’s why the book is at its best when abandoning its corporate hang-ups for pop satire: Mr. Bing takes some sharp jabs at Kevin Federline (though he doesn’t mention “PopoZao”); gives a brilliant history of game-show hosts; and does more to Bill O’Reilly in two pages than Nicholas Lemann’s much longer New Yorker profile.
And then come the October 2005–era jokes on Harriet Miers and FEMA.
Max Abelson is a writer living in New York.