Have you read this book?
If H.R. Giger wrote stories instead of painting pictures, if he read Lewis Carroll and found himself equally influenced by Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, he might well have written something like Vincent W. Sakowski’s Some Things Are Better Left Unplugged, a work that is similarly aloof, Wonderland-like, and given to satiric social commentary.
The basic story goes something like this: “the man” climbs down a hole into the earth. Meets strange people and a cat, his Nemesis, known as “the obese tabby.” Enters a contest known as “The Fray” in which his mechanical champion battles with the flesh-and-blood one of the obese tabby. Contest ends. The man wanders around. Meets more strange people. Enters another contest, this one played with words like 3D Scrabble. The end.
The story moves apace and the prose is top-notch, exhibiting the same solid economy as brushed stainless steel–which gets back to its Giger-esque aloofness, and its principal shortcoming: though the art in this fiction is well made, perhaps even over-engineered in its meticulous brevity, there lacks a firmly beating heart in its polished shell. Which means it lacks a compelling central character, or even conflict, and so reads more like an intellectual fancy than it does an emotional one.
Result: The narrative keeps its readers at arm’s-length, not offering much psychological insight into them, or why they do what they do. Actions and events come off as sort-of interesting, but seem more observed, as it were, than participated in.
Oh, but that’s not really the point. So what, exactly is being sold here? Not characters. The characters are topographic reference points in the plot. But plot isn’t being sold either because it’s only a means by which the real matter is brought to the fore.
What’s being sold here is twofold. The first fold is satire. Scathing social commentary. And just like a lot of satire before it, Some Things Are Better Left Unplugged puts its social commentary above its characterization, even above plot (kind of like hard SF all-too often going “whoopee” for gadgets at the expense of its characters) because what it has to say is more important than who says it, or how–that content alone proving engaging enough to maintain reader interest.
Or at least that’s how it usually works.
Except here the social commentary is pedestrian–not bad, just common. For instance: big business is bad, dehumanizing; corporate heads are devilish (though there are excellent atmospheric moments here); high school experiences are their own peculiar horror; vanity blinds; overweening ambition leads to downfall (both comic and literal)… and so on. Certainly some of this is entertaining, but our Gulliver here is the almost completely impassive fellow known as “the man.” This impassive feature, of course, is connected to the major final statement of the novel, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
First, we’ll mention that second fold. It is style. That satin-finished stainless steel prose.
No mass-market paperback pop novel is as attentively written (well, none that I’ve read, anyway, and I’ve read buckets of them), no matter what the blurbs on the backs of said pop novels may say. Unplugged exhibits a number of spiffy ideas, too, not the least of which is the presentation of its protagonist, “the man”, in three parts simultaneously representing past, present, future; the sharing of experiential memory; the self-conscious pleas for philological examination; the trickster manipulation of reader perception. There’s atmosphere here, too, and in more than one place–operating both as a sustained sense of world and as amplitude spikes therein.
But still a seven out of ten. Why?
Despite the good writing, Some Things Are Better Left Unplugged tackles satirical targets that have been done lots of times before and it does a no better (though certainly no worse) job than the been-there-done-that others. The very interesting matter of the possible 3-part protagonist and his conflict with the obese tabby, not to mention the related story-lines involving the albino penguin emperor and a Cassandra-like crazy lady, are not developed to a sufficient degree to make this, A) a larger novel than 58,000 words, which seems a wee bit thin for its potential and imparts a strong feeling of “might have been,” or B) a more satisfying novel by virtue of addressing those curiosities, plugging those “might have been” leaks.
Which brings us again to the final statement of the novel, which occurs during the anti-climactic word game.
This is satire, after all, and at the climactic moment audience expectation takes a beating–or delivers one, as the case may be (along Tom Stoppard-like lines; think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the Richard Dreyfuss character and his diatribes about “the audience,” if you will), and though this latter drubbing blinks at us most brightly, and though it proves as sly as much of what preceded, it fails to work fully for some of the same reasons the rest of the novel doesn’t quite fly: there’s no central compelling character upon which to hang our reading hats (there’s not supposed to be, get it? no? well, you will by the time you reach the end). The moment of realization here is not one of, “Aha, boy, wasn’t that a swell bit of excitement.” Instead, it’s more like: “Hey, wait a minute, I think that satirically-poking finger is jabbing at… at me!”
That seems to be a hard trick to pull off, saving your final satirical poke for your audience (though to be fair, anyone offended by such a thing probably isn’t part of the intended audience anyway), yet the trick has the advantage of clarifying the obese tabby’s near-to-final words, “I was only playing with my own very self.” Readers are engaged in something of a game here, after all: part puzzle, part art novel, and partly successful.