Coming soon to a small town near you: THE STORE.
Bentley Little’s 1998 parable of corporate menace tells the tale of an insidious retail discount store, creatively named “The Store” that plants its tentacles into the tiny town of Juniper, Arizona, and with lightning quickness proceeds to infest the entire town (how is that for a bag of mixed metaphors?)
The only thing standing between The Store and its absolute domination of the town is a small handful of courageous characters, including the protagonist, Bill, who is resentful of the The Store’s decimation of a beautiful meadow to build its parking lot (“They paved paradise…”). That resentment turns to loathing and dread as The Store destroys local businesses and their proprietors, ensnares his daughters, and takes over the local city council.
Admittedly, the plot is ridiculous. The sinister doings of The Store are never subtle. Employees are forced to chant and bow before an image of the CEO in a subterranean chapel; naysayers are dealt with by a shadowy clan of pasty trenchcoats called “Night Managers.” One of the more fun conceits is the appearance of bizarre and risque items on the shelves, from firecrackers and snuff films to illegal toys and personal pleasure items.
Full steam ahead, the plot barrels into territory that requires a suspension bridge of disbelief big enough to span the Pacific ocean. Murders, disappearances, and suicides become commonplace; vagrants begin to populate the town; a curfew is instituted. In the blink of an eye, the entire city becomes bankrolled by The Store. It’s an authoritarian nightmare executed not by the government, which is a disorderly, incompetent mess, but by the rigidly structured policy and procedure of a vast, powerful corporation.
It’s a parable of the times. In 1998, when the book was published, Amazon was in its nascent stages and a domain called Google.com was registered. Although the book is a time capsule of technology, with its faxes and emails and primitive search engine (which is, no surprise, owned by The Store), there is a prescient ring to the implication of a corporation which exerts absolute control over its customers.
I am a fervent believer in the teaching power of stories. Although horror is often discounted, overlooked, and underestimated, there is potential in looking at the worst case scenario and imagining how we should react, versus how the characters in the book actually behave.
The most frightening element of The Store is compliance. The machine steamrolls towards us, and it’s easier to submit than resist. Resistance will only get you crushed. Call it the “banality of evil.” Call it “submission to authority.” But don’t ever think it can’t happen to you, that it can’t happen in your town, in your country. As Little writes:
Human beings’ capacity to adjust to almost anything was supposed to be one of their greatest virtues, but is was also one of their greatest weaknesses. It rendered them compliant, allowed them to be exploited.
Although the plot accelerates to increasing heights of insanity, there is a methodical, incremental deliberateness to The Store’s takeover of Juniper that borders on rational. The next thing you know, there are leather uniforms and violent roundups of vagrants and the people are taking it all in stride. As one character reflects:
The scariest thing was how easily she’d adjusted to Store life, how comfortable the fit felt. Intellectually, she knew she should be shocked and horrified b some of the things that went on. She should be outraged and refuse to participate. But the truth was she really had no emotional response to most of what happened. She understood the necessity of it all, and none of it provoked any feelings within her.
We’ve been on this merry-go-round before. It was called the Inquisition. It was called Eugenics. It was called the Holocaust.
The idea that a corporation can levy such influence over a government and people is not far-fetched. We are living in a time where powerful lobbyists and interests have the power to affect our political leadership. We are living in a time where corporations slather their logos on stadiums and sponsor literally every piece of culture we consume. No matter our values, not a one of us has not sacrificed those values for the sake of convenience, for the sake of a lower price. Advertisers understand more about human behavior than science ever will.
Sure, the book is silly, but the sentiment is real, 1984 wrought for the consumerist age. We are in debt up to our hairlines because of it. At some point we have to say no. We have to make better choices. Because THE STORE is coming to a town near you, but only if you let it.