Monday, March 5, 2012

Peter Darbyshire's The Warhol Gang

Authors of futuristic novels can often have things both ways. For their imaginative worlds, the serious praise of prophecy rightly intuited is highlighted, as is the repeated bows and salutes for creating an alternate reality that mirrors aspects of contemporary society while introducing us to technology, social interaction, and psychological states that boldly go where ... (I know I know, treading on trademarked Gene Roddenberry ground, if he indeed penned it).

Peter Darbyshire's second novel, 2010's The Warhol Gang, is a futuristic proposition, but the time and space perspectives are near and nearby. It therefore has more responsibility to make its world believable for its transition from, and dependency on, today's streets and strophes.

Trotsky (most of the characters' names are cleverly penned as an ironic commentary on revolutionaries) is in need of a job, any job, so, through a career employment agency, is matched with Adsenses, a neuromarketing company which transposes product images in a hologram for its guinea pigs (or canaries) in order to see which areas of its employees' brains light up with excitement and (therefore) buying stimulus. The problem for Trotsky is that the images are so technologically effective, so powerful, that they literally erase great chucks of his memory and create an obsession for him to buy the products he sees in his workpod.

So far, so good. The story follows countless other fictions in which the past is erased, and one is left to negotiate between a shifting reality without moral guidelines or social commonplaces. At first, our troubled hero or anti-hero acquires the goods, but when his "Is that all there is" moment arrives, he goes searching for a deeper meaning through visceral, dramatic ambulance-chasing attempts to bond with the dead and dying. I'm not sure why Trotsky has this powerful impetus when no other fellow employees are stricken so, and especially when his brain has been so reprogrammed and manipulated. It seems that his confusion and amorality (dramatically convincing in paint-by-numbers prose) would set him off as just one more drone who inevitably goes postal after a meaningless existence, accelerated day by day. And in fact, a variant of that (likewise) nihilistic staple is next up. Theft ramps up to destruction and manslaughter, though I won't spoil the plot further.

The biggest problem with The Warhol Gang is in its prophetic course. Without a doubt, Darbyshire makes thoughtful points on the fifteen-seconds-of-fame desires of the mob (everyone? most? and how much is technologically driven, how much a psychological inevitability of human nature?) -- no subtlety, after all, that the gang is named after the proudly unoriginal Campbell's soup displayer -- and he also aces, in many wonderful scenes that go far beyond envy, an obsessive compulsion to become the other person which certainly have roots in consumer manipulation. But a sober look-'round, whether in Vancouver or Virginia, tells us that mall-mania and credit availability are already on the downturn, one that is likely to be long-lasting (perhaps permanent), worldwide, and relentless. There hasn't been a major mall built in the U.S. in a decade, and most of the remaining ones are filled with closed and closing stores; the international financial clusterfuck means credit card companies and banks will be (and are) reducing the number of right-side zeroes on consumer limits. Frivolous goods are still promoted, still bought, still desired, perhaps, in a perverse way, desired now even more so, but it's the desire for extreme experience in a war zone as one last stimulation before death (again, Darbyshire does an excellent job in delineating this). But it's not that people will clamour for ever more sophisticated versions of communications devices or work-easing appliances, it's that the money (i.e. natural resources) to create desires in prospective customers (in a pod or not) won't be there, meaning that it's tentacular grip will relax and sink to the bottom of the sea.

The second problem with the novel is its lack of any positive counterforce. (I don't call the "conflicted" Trotsky a meaningful alternative). Novels can certainly be unrelentingly grim, and some are better for their faithfulness to a monochromatic tone, but The Warhol Gang loses a lot of moral force and social realism by reducing its world to the disaffected inhabitants of a world uniformly compelled to sell it guns and garters.

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