Berger’s deliciously deadpan 23rd reworks the vein of satiric fantasy prominently displayed in such predecessors as Vital Parts (1970) and Regiment of Women (1973).
It begins with an expository sentence that ought to be worshipped by writing students—the thrust of which is that “animatronics technician” Ellery Pierce attempts to repair his failures with real women by creating a mechanical one. The result of his Frankensteinian labors is Phyllis, a gorgeous, superefficient domestic paragon and sexual partner “who” draws rave reviews from houseguests, but consigns Ellery to unemployment, indigence, and depression when his creation develops a mind, so to speak, of her own. Phyllis leaves him to pursue a show biz career, working as a stripper and lap dancer, phone-sex caller, and star of a “voyeur website,” before finding her niche in community theater and acquiring useful notoriety for her unconventional interpretation of Lady Macbeth. Hollywood stardom follows; her ambitious “Camille” remake flops: reenter Ellery, who has pulled himself together to manage Phyllis’s new conquest of afternoon TV, even greater celebrity, leading to—what else? —the White House. The amusing dénouement pits Phyllis against President Joe Sloan, a hilarious amalgam of LBJ’s and Bill Clinton’s worst qualities, and her accession to power persuades Ellery that one final “adjustment” is required. This dour novel, an obvious lineal descendant of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There and Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate, has many enviable virtues. Berger has long since mastered a narrative concision that few living writers (perhaps only Muriel Spark) can equal, and his incidental potshots at reality TV, political correctness, media overkill, and other wretched excesses will have readers chuckling with malicious pleasure. It’s all a bit hurried, though (the ending is particularly abrupt): not quite vintage Berger, therefore.
Still, who wouldn’t pay to hear Sinatra with the sniffles? It is Berger, and it’s essential reading.