A timid scientist becomes a military-grade bionic man in the latest corporate satire from Barry (Jennifer Government, 2003, etc.).
When we meet Charlie, the hero of the author’s fourth novel, he’s desperate to find the cell phone he’s misplaced. He spots it soon enough in one of his employer’s laboratories—he’s an industrial engineer at a corporation called Better Future—but pays a terrible price when he loses a leg in a heavy-duty clamp as he tries to retrieve it. The lesson ought to be that we should take care how attached we get to our gadgets, but Charlie’s takeaway is precisely the opposite; astounded at the progress made in prosthetic design and inspired with his own ideas to improve his artificial leg, he becomes convinced that technology can almost universally improve on flesh-and-blood anatomy. His doctors are aghast—especially when Charlie intentionally cuts off his other leg in the clamp—but he has a supporter in Lola, a prosthetics expert who becomes his love interest, and in his employers, who see lucrative military contracts in his creations. As in his previous novels, Barry takes scenarios that ought to be tragic and cannily reshapes them into smart, piercing comedy about contemporary workaday life. Here the target is both corporate greed and technological obsession, though this time the humor grows bleaker and more grotesque—Barry nervily explores how much of the body can be mechanized, right down to heartbeats and synapses. A love story emerges, as does a kind of ersatz superhero plot where Charlie battles a rival rigged with similar prostheses. But the author takes care to return to the central question of how much of our humanity we’re willing to sacrifice for technology, and how much we already have.
Though this novel is notably darker than his other books, Barry still finds a smirking and at times uproarious way to expose our endless obsession with technological fixes.