An artist-cum-bureaucrat gets his wife back (or a version of her) in Jones’ (Crystal Eaters, 2014, etc.) fourth novel.
It is a summer of thunderstorms and xenophobic unrest in A-Ville, but Vincent, a former painter who works for the state, hardly notices. He’s reeling with depression because his wife, Alice—fed up with Vincent’s emotional enslavement to the retirement package (still hypothetical and more than 20 years away) that keeps him from quitting his job and leaving A-Ville—has divorced him. Then Vincent is asked to participate in PER, a program run by Ronald Reagan worshipper Dorian Blood, who promises that PER will allow Vincent to “live a fulfilling existence while being a productive worker”; in other words, it will distort his experience of reality so that he can work with “stunning proficiency” while “physically interacting with the life [he’s] always wanted.” Vincent has reservations, but Jones wouldn’t have a book if Vincent didn’t acquiesce, so he does, only to discover that his ideal life consists of just one change: It includes Alice. An uneasy mishmash of social satire, moral fable, dystopian sci-fi, and love story, Jones’ novel slides between the influential shadows of writers like Anthony Burgess, George Saunders, Philip K. Dick, and Don DeLillo while never quite cohering into a convincing shape of its own. This is, in part, because the world—a twist and shake different from our own—feels incompletely built. PER Alice, for example, is never quite convincing as an entity, mostly because we don’t know the metaphysical rules of her existence: Sometimes she’s visible and audible to others—when she answers the telephone, her words are heard—and yet she’s also a nontangible figment of Vincent’s memory. Similarly underdeveloped are A-ville’s violence and racism, the existence of which would powerfully indict Vincent’s solipsism—people are attacking Muslims while he perpetuates his fantasies and earns his pension—if the scenes that describe it, which are jocular and cartoonish, didn’t feel written solely to have exactly that moral effect. However, Jones is an acute cultural observer and a very funny aphorist—“Anger is lazy”; “Men are brave but only inside cars”; “Everything makes sense if you let it”;—and his book, despite its faults, contains many delights.
An intelligent, entertaining, and yet unconvincing mashup of Office Space, A Scanner Darkly, and A Clockwork Orange.