Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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A story about a man who works on Mars might sound like a departure for Chicago novelist Ben Tanzer. Yet here, in Tanzer’s most recent work, we see all the familiar themes.
We have a male, young but no longer so young, an adult, perhaps suddenly, or suddenly just coming into an awareness of it, that amorphous notion of “adulthood,” that melding of responsibilities and commitments and a certain lack of possibilities, a death of previous, perhaps never fully considered, dreams. A young father, then, who loves his child or children so much he cries, but is also baffled and more than a little terrified by the role, its echoes of history and ramifications for his own and others’ futures. “The idea that Shalla and I could have created something as perfect as this child nearly breaks my heart,” this narrator says. And, as is the Tanzer pattern, his reflections on this revelation lead to further musing on parenting as a task: while it “can feel like a trap and is so often fraught with anger, pain and frustration there are moments like this—sporadic bursts of joy and peace and love—that cancel out all of the other stuff.”
Our narrator (hero?), has or comes to a kind of basic awareness about society, too. If Tanzer gives us a fairly stripped-down, possibly conservative, vision of family as a good, of children as a blessing, he gives us, as well, a simplified political consciousness: “I feel empathy for the people around me, for all of us. This is what it looks like to live today when you are not part of the Corporation or a 1-Percenter. A mix of fear and shock, and the sense that it probably isn’t going to get any better.” Note that the sci-fi language here resonates with the lingo of our current human-megaphone moment. Tanzer’s protagonist might take a shuttle to the Prosperity Sector, but the imaginary merely highlights the real. Black helicopters emphasize a discord, a paranoia, but, ultimately, such inventions are merely framing devices. Even on Mars, we’re on well-known ground.
Sure, dislocation may be rendered more literal by the space opera conceit, and Tanzer’s narrator’s sense of his own replacability here plays out via an android (Terrax) given his physical appearance and programmed with something of his memories and personalities, but the robots in this book don’t change the essential flavor. They just add a little extra metallic hue to the palette: when our narrator’s wife finds greater sexual satisfaction from a machine than from her husband, the sci-fi merely tweaks and highlights the everyday. Likewise, when our narrator finds himself checking out the ass of a woman who is not his wife, and feels that mix of desire and guilt, self-criticism and loss, it only accentuates the confusion and dis-ease by noting that said ass is part of a “specially crafted office chick” robot.
Tanzer’s hero still seeks some largely lost sense of connection (to self? to experience? maybe just to feeling). Here he might get high on sci-fi synthetics, but the sensation is the same, as is the stoner guru, an eternal figure Tanzer calls Lebowski. Kite-surfing, whether in a digital simulation room or out on the actual water, becomes, in Tanzer fashion, at once a release and an opportunity for self-examination; escape and critique of escapism:
When nothing else makes sense there are the waves, and in the waves there is Zen—balance and understanding, recognition of problems and the untangling of confusions. There is also the sense that we are just small parts of a much bigger universe. Specks in time and space, insignificant really, except to those who care about us, because to them we are the universe in so many ways. I continue to forget this, however, in my selfishness, my narcissism, my inability to face reality and my endless focus on what I think I need to be whole, happy and content.
We don’t need sinister helicopters, robot soldiers, android replacements, or memory-removing doctors to get at what Tanzer gets at in the above paragraph. In this book, these trappings help to highlight and reframe the essential and ongoing dilemma of Tanzer’s narrators, a feeling of inauthenticity in their roles, a fear over ability to completely connect or engage, an anxiety about the distance of memory and the inscrutable expanse of the future. And in all this swirl of thought about significance or insignificance, there is a voice that rejects the concern, in general, as self-indulgent, part of a tendency, as on the kite-board above, to get lost in one’s own thoughts, feel homeless inside one’s own head and bed and desk and social roles. This, in the end, is the freakiest show, to quote the song. Living on Mars is pure gravy; we’ve got all the drama we can handle here on earth.
Official Ben Tanzer Web Site
Official Switchgrass Books Web Site