We’ve all seen them as we’ve flipped channels to find our favorite “romcom” or HBO show, the infomercials promoting the newest type of portion control blender and ceramic poodle statues. But what do we really know about the world of the QVCs and HSN? While it is a part of our everyday life, the freshly painted faces of the hosts and overpriced chotchkies are only a tenth of the powerhouse business, according to Jim Breslin in his novel Shoplandia, published by Oermead Press (founded by Breslin, who also hosts the West Chester Story Slam and who worked as a producer for many years at QVC).
The book contains a series of short story chapters that cycle around the workers of the Shoplandia corporation, a television shopping network that devotes one hundred percent of every day to the ridiculous need Americans have to buy unnecessary items. The first chapter “Freight Train” is the perfect title for the opening chapter. Like one of the primary characters, Jake, the readers are thrown into the fast-paced world of a television shopping network, as he works to learn the ropes at his first post-college job as production assistant. Breslin does a great job setting the scene of Jake’s new professional world, a world both familiar and foreign to the reader through the use of the present tense and first person point-of-view. Even if the reader does not want to, she is just as much “a backstage minion” as Jake is to demanding show hosts like Tanya, Karen and the demanding Calabrese, a “portly show host with an ego that nearly matches his waistline”.
Breslin’s choice to set the stories within the television shopping network corporation is one of the most refreshing and strategic narrative moves I have experienced in a long time. Not only does the vastness of the company open the reader up to a variety of jobs and experiences, it gives Breslin the opportunity to throw different types of people together and let the natural stresses of life cause interesting conflict. Although some aspects of Shoplandia are inconsistently handled, the interweaving of personal and professional make Breslin’s fictionalized world truly entertaining.
Most of the conflicts arise when things go awry on set and characters must deal with deviations and last minute decisions. The chapter “Damn Yankees” (first published here at Turk’s Head Review) is set in the first person past tense and focuses on the character of Dottie, a working mother trying to provide her boss the “God Bless America hoopla” he wants to see in the “on-air presentations”. As if launching an “all-American product” isn’t enough, Dottie has to deal with her son Zach’s little league team as they cram Coney Island Hot Dogs into their mouths one after another in their uniforms in an effort to promote the food and make the program as big a representative of America as possible. Naturally, things don’t go according to plan and Dottie is left to literally clean-up the mess in a matter of seconds. Dottie is the featured character in another chapter called “Day of the Dead”. Again, she is forced to deal with the unforeseeable when her plans for the show on Halloween and her life go through an emotional roller coaster. Likewise, for Jake who appears in three different chapters, there are instances where the backdrop of Shoplandia is only that, a backdrop for his personal life as he experiences the high of a new love life and the low of the loss that sometimes accompanies a passionate love. Not only are the characters interesting and unique, the situations they find themselves in, both in the realm of Shoplandia and at home, are similarly complicated and realistic and emphasize what it means to be a working adult.