Corporations Can Teach You How to Fail, and Other News


On the Shelf

A bad idea.


  • What can we learn from Crystal Pepsi? What does green ketchup teach us? That corporations, our gods, are as fallible as we are; that no amount of market research can prepare you for the brutal realities of the marketplace; that it’s okay to fail sometimes, as long as you can explain it to your shareholders. Above all, every expensive, high-stakes commercial failure carries in it the germ of our collective death, of whatever defect in our society will lead to our undoing. In Sweden, Dr. Samuel West, a clinical psychologist, has opened a museum of failure, where visitors can worship at the altar of every dumb letdown that’s ever graced the shelves of Walmart. It’s not about laughing, he says. It’s about reckoning with disaster. Alexander Smith reports, “They saw marvels such as the Rejuvenique Electric Facial Mask, a harrowing Jason Voorhees–style invention that promises in just ninety days to make you as beautiful as Linda Evans from Dynasty, who features on the box. The Harley-Davidson eau de toilette was rejected by bikers who felt it damaged the brand, the female-branded Bic pens crashed and burned for obvious reasons, and while the plastic bike didn’t rust, it also wobbled alarmingly while in motion … Other exhibits include potato chips made with the fat substitute olestra, which has the benefit of helping weight loss but unfortunate side effect of diarrhea … Tech giant Apple features in the museum with its 1993 personal assistant, the Newton MessagePad, whose poor handwriting recognition has earned it almost mythical status among the history of bad gadgets … ‘The media like to cover the museum because they get to show some funny stuff and write a clickbait headline,’ [Dr. West] said. ‘But the underlying message is definitely not a gimmick.’ ”
  • Poor Mikhail Bulgakov. He worked and worked and got nothing for it. Boris Dralyuk writes, “A central tragedy of Bulgakov’s life: almost all his efforts to win official acceptance, if not approval, were stymied by his inability to produce—and at times even deduce—what was asked of him … We get a keen sense of this ambition from Bulgakov’s letter to his cousin, sent in 1921 from Vladikavkaz, where he first began to regard himself as a professional writer: ‘At night I sometimes read over the stories I’ve published previously (in newspapers! in newspapers!), and I think: where is my volume of collected works? Where is my reputation? Where are the wasted years?’ It is painful to consider how little he would be able to boast of after another nineteen years of back-breaking literary labor: one volume of fiction; journal clippings of feuilletons, short stories, novellas, and part of his novel White Guard (1925); as well as a handful of staged plays—many of which were quickly banned … Toward the end of his life he knew that his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, was doomed to ‘the darkness of a drawer.’ ”

  • In Beijing, Chinese officials enjoy several long, stewing, deeply drunken banquets every week. These are fun, until somebody dies. Long Ling attended a banquet where a man literally drank himself to death right there at the table, setting off a chain of events that culminated in an ominous cover-up:“A report of the incident reached the office of the deputy mayor. He decided that what had actually happened was the following: a comrade had died suddenly of a heart condition, brought on by hard work, not drinking; there had not been a banquet; the local police station had never received a report of an incident. Since there had been no banquet, no one could be disciplined. The deputy mayor agreed that the dead man’s family should receive a large sum in recognition of the hard-working bureau chief’s sacrifice. The family expressed their satisfaction. On the seventh day after death, the ghost of a dead person returns, so families prepare good food and burn a paper ladder by which the ghost can ascend to heaven. At the appointed time, relatives of the departed went to the entrance to the small restaurant to perform the ritual, irritating the owner, who demanded several thousand RMB in compensation for the psychological harm he had suffered. Soon after this ill-omened event he closed the restaurant and left town … The incident slowly faded into the past. Only subtle signs in the expressions of colleagues who had been involved satisfied me that it had actually taken place.”
  • Philip Guston’s art was shaped by his love of poetry, writes Cara Ober: “It’s well documented that, after Guston’s fall from grace, he left Manhattan for Woodstock, and surrounded himself with young poets. ‘They [the poets] see without the jargon of art,’ he said in the March 15, 1980 issue of the New Republic. ‘Sharply. Fresh. Sometimes they are funny or their reactions are funny and I enjoy that.’ The exhibit in Venice includes a number of rarely shown collaborations where Guston illustrated the poetry of his wife Musa McKim and friend Clark Coolidge into capricious ‘poem-pictures’ on paper … The show argues that Guston’s staying power—grounded in fresh oddness, compelling authenticity, and dodgy compositions—was a direct consequence of his relationship with poetic language and form, as well as the ideas of the poets who wrote them. Rather than a romantic inevitability, Poets offers a pragmatic and collaborative handle to Guston’s career as a prolific artist and maker; it attests to the power of verbal and metaphorical language in nourishing his visual oeuvre.”
  • Jamie James takes another look at South Wind, a once-famous novel that no one reads anymore: “In the summer of 1917, as German aircraft pounded London with bombs, and the first American troops arrived in France, many readers yearned for escape. That June, the polymathic travel writer Norman Douglas published his first novel, South Wind, which narrates the misadventures of a motley collection of foreigners living in Nepenthe, an imaginary Mediterranean island that closely resembles Capri, where Douglas lived. The book was an immediate best-seller … South Wind was once a fixture on lists of modern classics. Graham Greene, who befriended Douglas on his seasonal visits to Capri, said, ‘My generation was brought up on South Wind.’ But it has slipped beyond the canonical pale and attracts little notice among scholars today. One reason for this decline, undoubtedly, is Douglas’s scandalous private life. By the time he wrote South Wind, his sexual inclination had shifted to a mania for young boys.”