A literary novel chronicles a young man’s peculiar relationship to objects.
In a near future where increasing levels of technology have made people both interconnected and more isolated, Cole Scott-Knox-Under chooses a different path. A 27-year-old with eyes that “embody the observant fearful gaze of the autodidact: deep skepticism fused to emotional vulnerability,” Cole has chosen to work at Burger King, taking lunch orders while (mostly) avoiding the invasive demands of modernity. He has been instructed to wear virtual reality glasses at all times (which allow him to view his customers’ online lives as presented in clouds around their heads), though he refuses due to a strong aversion to VR that goes back to his teenage years. Cole is more attracted to the analog than the digital, compulsively collecting objects—cup lids, papers bags, plastic utensils—and storing them under his bed in his mother’s apartment. He is already balancing the pressures of family, identity, and a host of social expectations demanded by the colorful characters that populate his life, but things get really strange when the garbage Cole collects begins to speak to him. A plastic cup named Jason thanks Cole for picking him off the ground, but tells him, “There are more. They need to be rescued as well.” Cole isn’t sure if he’s crazy or uniquely sane, but whatever his neurological state, it is driving him to exhaustion. In a world where everything, both animate and inanimate, is made to be disposable, Cole desperately seeks something permanent on which to anchor his life.
Bramble’s (Grid City Overload, 2012, etc.) work evokes that of many 20th-century authors who sought to grapple with their eras’ technological tumult. His postmodern maximalism calls to mind Thomas Pynchon and William T. Vollmann; his grim dystopianism, Orwell and Margaret Atwood; his overt social criticism, Richard Wright and Kurt Vonnegut. The prose is clear and precise, though it accumulates with the heft of bricks piled to form a wall. The author possesses a particular interest in the physicality and unnaturalness of the objects in Cole’s world: “Aerosol deodorant cans; wasted steel shells burnt from escaping xylyl bromide; stockpiles of burned CDs now too scratched and so laid to death; lungs withered and crusted with sulfur.” Cole may be the protagonist, but the story’s strongest personality is its authorial third-person narrator, who routinely pulls the reader away from the hero to offer essayistic digressions on the nature of technology and society using frequent (and sometimes-multipage) excerpts from sources as varied as scientific studies, Salon articles, and Will Self novels. On its own, the book represents an impressive intellectual feat. As the third volume in a triptych of novels concerned with technology’s impact on the way humans think and feel, the work confirms the prodigious talent of its author. Cerebral and often funny, this is by no means a tale for everyone. But those readers who like their fiction built on heady concepts will find this book to be a challenging and gratifying experience.
A dense, ambitious social saga with a sci-fi tinge.