A young man’s life is upended by a device that purports to tattoo a description of your true self on your arm.
Venter, the narrator of Gerrard’s second novel (Short Century, 2014), has an unfortunate judgment tattooed on his arm: “Dependent on the Opinion of Others.” That message has been delivered via the epiphany machine, a sewing machine–like device that its cryptic, charismatic, oft-stoned owner, Adam, has been deploying in a Manhattan apartment since the 1960s. The machine has been alternately embraced for its soothsaying (John Lennon got a tattoo) and mocked as cultic snake oil, but Venter has personal reasons to take it seriously. After all, is he wrong to read meanings in his father’s tattoo (“Should Never Become a Father”) or his vanished mother’s (“Abandons What Matters Most”)? To investigate mom’s disappearance, Venter becomes an assistant to Adam, gathering personal testimonials from tattoo recipients while he finishes high school and starts college. As the plot enters the 21st century, Gerrard picks up storylines involving 9/11, the war on terror, and online algorithms that seem to know a little too much about us. That range makes the novel feel somewhat uncentered, a problem exacerbated by Gerrard's multitude of storytelling modes (testimonials, news reports, book excerpts). When it sticks to Venter's perspective, though, it’s an affecting exploration of fate and the clash of our private and public selves. How doomed is he to be acquiescent because of his tattoo? Are our lives improved by knowing our essence clearly, even if it’s not exactly positive? Does that essence predict criminality? (A “Does Not Understand Boundaries” tattoo correlates to pedophilia.) How much trust do we put in one person’s (or machine’s) judgment? Gerrard goes about this a little messily, but he's ambitiously wrestling in the muck of big questions.
A pleasurably speculative yarn about family and ethics.