A bold, dark, difficult vision, Topiary might be best described as Thomas Pynchon doing George Orwell while channeling Diane Ackerman.
Upon tripping over the word â€œpanopticon”–a sly nod to Foucault?–in Engel’s new book, readers might be forgiven for moving on, hearing in the author’s academic jargon the murmurs of an unemployed graduate student trying to find a venue for his condescension. They would be wrong to do so, however, for while the book is learned, hyper-complex and full of stylistic acrobatics, it is also quite good. Little needs to be said, or can be said, of the plot of what the author has dubbed a â€œmodular novel.” Engel sets readers down in a dystopic metropolis called â€œThe City.” (Engel capitalizes all the menacing institutional forces in the novel; we also have â€œThe Nation,” â€œThe Corporation,” â€œThe Database” and â€œThe Network.”) At the book’s center–if readers can find it–is Plantman, a former ad exec who flees the corporate world to work for Topiary Techniques, a company devoted to the care of indoor plants primarily housed in office buildings. Plantman’s journey through the labyrinthine â€œCity” is as difficult to describe as it is engrossing, and its twists and turns are best left to readers, though they must exercise patience. Engel’s prose style is indeed demanding, recalling the experimentalism of postmodern literary tricksters like Pynchon or, later, David Foster Wallace. He fires his prose in machine-gun bursts that occasionally–and sometimes detrimentally–resemble text messages in their ragged brevity. At other times, while traveling through the more arid portions of his prose, readers will wish for a descriptive oasis. But Engel pushes on, painting his frightening landscape with obsessive grace, and readers will be compelled to follow.
Grim and experimental, but worth the effort.