THE PINNACLE OF human civilization is junk food. More than any pyramid or tomb, it represents the apex of how humanity has mastered itself and its innate desires. It combines three of the rarest elements in nature — salt, fat, and sugar — in an affordable, easy to consume package. It preys on our primal instincts to seek out these elements and covet them at any cost, behaviors burned into the core of our minds from a time when our ancestors had to fight to attain even tiny amounts of them. Add to that corporations whose sole purpose is to exploit that instinct, which pump untold amounts of money into research, refinement, and marketing, and we are nearly powerless in the face of it. Even compared to the realms of politics, science, and academia, there may be no entities on earth who understand human behavior better.
Now consider the idea of a corporation that has tapped into emotional desires just as deeply — if you could exist as a dual consciousness, one that experienced the happy successes of life while the other existed in gray mediocrity, would you take it? If they promised to reshape your waking reality in order to increase your unconscious productivity, could you still enjoy it with the terrible knowledge that you are living a lie? In the newest novel from Shane Jones, Vincent and Alice and Alice from Tyrant Books, the titular Vincent is confronted with this very question. Rather than being offered a red pill or a blue pill, Vincent has a different choice: the unremarkable pain of real life, or the emotional equivalent of a cheeseburger and fries exploding in his brain every second of the day.
On the day I start reading the novel, my manager informs me that I’m participating in an all-day seminar for “Process Improvement and Collaborative Governance” on Friday. It’s mandatory. If I had the choice to minimize the time spent on it, I would, but I get a feeling I don’t have a choice in the matter. I usually try to ignore coincidences and apophenia in my life, but I can’t help but notice the parallels between the book and this inane task.
Shane Jones is a well-known name due to the success and controversy of his debut novel, Light Boxes, released in 2010 by Penguin Books. It follows the surrealist tale of a small town’s war against February, who exists both as a season and a person, and which has cursed them with an endless winter. It is a cathartic story that blends a frontier landscape with sensual elements, tragedy highlighted by sharpness of mint, depression softened by the sweet lull of flowers. In Crystal Eaters (Two Dollar Radio, 2014), Jones creates a village being physically encroached on by a city, following the story of Remy and her family as they deal with the literally impending doom. The characters live their lives imprisoned by the properties of different colored crystals, some hewn from the earth in a desperate attempt to improve the crystal count inside them. What happens here are the choices of the individual: either to scratch, dig, and claw at an unyielding, inorganic surface, desperate to connect despite the damage to the physical body, or to remain frozen inside of a quartz-tinted life. Both action and inaction result in catastrophic consequences, and Jones paints this world for us in a mythological, yet utterly real, fashion.
While Light Boxes and Crystal Eaters could be set in the past, present, or distant future, Vincent and Alice and Alice takes place in a time that could be solidly defined as the present and near-future, much closer in relation to our own reality than his previous works. The timeline starts in 2017 and stretches to 2037, and Vincent’s world is a landscape dominated by Walmart rather than woodland. He has an office job with the “State,” a job that seems to involve the same trappings as our own, in which co-worker birthdays and reams of copier paper make up the minutiae of the day. There is Elderly, an old man who lives in a car on his street, who for all intents and purposes seems to be Vincent’s best friend. Between Vincent’s mediocrity and Elderly’s eccentric nature, they seem to balance each other out, neither conflicting nor agreeing on anything in particular. In a bland existence, Elderly could be considered Vincent’s tether to reality, a reminder that chaos exists as a part of life. But of course, these are just ancillary details to the person that consumes Vincent’s mind, despite being physically absent: Alice.
When we meet Vincent, he is dominated (in every sense of the word) by thoughts of his ex-wife, Alice. No matter where he goes or whom he interacts with, he is followed by permutations of Alice, which drift back and forth from the melancholy to the obsessive. Apparently, this is a pattern of behavior that has always been a part of him:
Alice said I was incapable of living in reality. She said I spent too much time in my head, which is impossible because my reality was Alice, planning our days together. We spent weekends in bed eating sushi, reading the first ten pages of novels, binging shows, sleeping to no clock, no rules, no guidelines, no sense of time. If my imagination did wander, it always included her.
Jones writes Vincent as a man diving head first into just about anything, even adopting an old dog on a whim, to get away from the pain of Alice’s physical absence in his life. While outwardly composed, Vincent is flailing, searching for meaning in a life where its focal point has got up and left.
One of the people to reach out and steady Vincent’s hand comes from within his workplace, when he is scheduled to meet with an enigmatic figure named Dorian Blood. While the average person would already be sensing the ominous overtones, Vincent attends the meeting anyway. There, Dorian — a square-jawed yet erratic executive type — gives him the option of participating in PER, a new kind of mental strategy designed to increase worker productivity. Vincent is promised with the reward of “the gate,” which, when entered, will turn him into a split consciousness, physically toiling while mentally rejoicing. He will still be working at his dead-end job, but will experience a new simultaneous reality in which anything is possible. Even in the context of this review, you can probably guess that Vincent agrees to do this. With language clouded in the kind of obfuscation reserved for New Age seminars and corporate retreats, Vincent is given the instructions to reach the gate, as well as rules for engagement with it. I recognize this language from my own workplace, where I am pelted with acronyms and esoteric phrases as solutions to problems: Post Deltas, HRO, KANO, EBP, DMAIC. I am told to focus on innovation, to adhere to the white belt method, to identify problem statements and vision statements. I still don’t understand how this fits into my job.
As Vincent works with the Patrick Bateman–esque Dorian, he is told to learn and adhere to the rules of the gate at all costs:
1. Do not confront the gate about its plausibility.
2. Do not question the humans inside the gate.
3. Do not control the gate.
4. Let the gate guide you.
5. Do not attempt to escape from the gate.
6. Documenting the gate by video or photo is prohibited.
When Vincent asks, “How will I know what’s real and what isn’t?” Dorian replies, “We get that one a lot. But at this stage in your life, does it matter?” In our own lives, we have to make so many decisions and sacrifices, which the PER system is satirizing. Do we go out after work, or stare at a different screen at home? As we get older, the future begins to loom over us as a cold reality instead of a bright tomorrow. The days become obstacles to get through instead of opportunities, our precious lives poured into the forge of capitalism to create a solid plan — a future we can have, hold, depend on — in other words, an impossible thing. Every day we are confronted with news of climate change and the unrest that has resulted because of it. The picture only becomes grimmer with each passing day, as resources dwindle and small collapses nick away at the foundations of the world. It’s enough to make fantasy seem like an attractive alternative, even compared to connecting with others. Vincent says of Alice, “From her point of view the reason our marriage ended wasn’t because I couldn’t fulfill her sexually, but I stopped connecting. She said I wasn’t there with her mentally because I was either commuting to work, at work, coming home from work, or dead-eyed from having sat for eight hours at work.” How many of us, whether supporting the ever-increasing cost of rent, family, education, or costs of living, could not say we are the same?
Vincent follows the rules of PER, and engages with his work on a level he never has before. Ironically, all details of his work fall to the wayside — there are no more pithy comments from co-workers, the state of his “zone” in the cubicle, or what he does in off-hours. Everything that creates the landscape of his day, and thus the story as we read it, falls away into a void. As his productivity increases, he starts to notice changes. He sleeps for 25 hours at a time. The days turn into one-sentence chapters, sitting at his desk and not saying a word. Dorian and his cronies monitor him, impressed by his progress, promising that he is rapidly approaching the gate.
Elderly and his car, which previously functioned as Vincent’s anchor to reality, have vanished.
In my own world, the instructor at the mandatory seminar tells us that in order to adhere to the Lean Six Sigma process (created by Toyota in the wake of their airbag failures) all projects must be formatted on an A3 sized sheet of paper. This is the size used on auto factory floors, and it is big enough to see while on the line. It is written in pencil so changes can be made easily and quickly. I ask how we are supposed to create these sheets when the company’s printers only fit a maximum paper size of A4. They promise to get back to my question, and they never do.
After a day of work only marked by a co-worker conversation of what to get for lunch, Vincent returns to his apartment to find someone inside it. It is Alice, acting as if their separation has never happened. Vincent tests the reality several ways, but comes to the same conclusion: it is Alice, and she is real, and she is here. The gate has worked. But all this ignores an important fact: the book begins not with Vincent’s dialogue, but with an excerpt from Alice, in 2037. Is this Alice solely a creation of Vincent’s mind? If that’s true, then when Vincent finds out that Dorian is an undercover cop and Elderly owns four houses with his own wife — is that real? Or does it not matter, like Dorian says? The apex philosophical question of the novel remains, in A Scanner Darkly–type psych-noir twist: what happens when Alice meets Alice?
In Vincent and Alice and Alice, Jones has created a sharp modern allegory, fueled with the issues so prevalent in society. The desperate coping mechanisms we turn to in the face of grief. The near-satirical level of process improvement in our workplaces, to the point where any real changes are moot in the face of bureaucracy. Our obsessive natures, tempered by the sterile drudgery of white-collar work, and the humor we find in trying to adapt to it. Most importantly, the novel addresses the nature of love — how we love others and treat them in a society that values disposal over sentimentality, what we give and what we ask of those we love, and how this will change in a growing world that is constantly breaking apart and reforming itself into something new.
Is this really what our future will look like? A world dominated by productivity, distraction, and consumerism over the pitfalls of human connection? I think what Jones is saying is that it doesn’t have to be. As the world changes, we will change with it, and the only way to create a sustainable future is to find greater empathy with each other. Vincent’s marriage failed because he lost sight of the actual Alice, he slipped into a pattern of complacency that is warm and familiar. Relationships can’t thrive in stagnation. In a time when nothing is certain and entities try to guide us the way they want to, we need to remember that our human connection is what grounds us. The answers are not there yet, but the only way we can figure them out is together.
At the end of the meeting at my workplace, we are given a coupon to a fast food place for a discount when you buy a cheeseburger and fries. I leave mine on the desk.