An Ersatz Wonderland: On Stephen Wright’s “Processed Cheese”
By Rob LathamApril 14, 2020
Processed Cheese by Stephen Wright
The crystal of his mind trembled in its clarity. An enormous fan opened then on a landscape of rock and crevice he had never known, and then another, and another, quickly, like a tearing of skin, arrangements of form and texture disturbing in their alienated familiarity, and these wedges drove into him with splitting force, and he lifted on a peak of vertigo, and then the last fan unfolded, and he looked upon a weaving of lines as distinct as the tracer fire on the mountain, and the tension in those lines was connected to the revelation that his body was certainly a machine, deafening in the roar of its parts, and he saw into the hidden work of a moment, the innumerable strands wiggling in the wind of possibility, and the other lines, those threaded few that were being drawn through him by every separate movement of muscle (thought had never mattered much), and winding out into that spiral of rope dropping away into the infinite past. He saw how the gestures of each instant since his induction and probably from further back than he wished to know had conspired to lead him gently as a domesticated animal to the violence of this moment.
That passage is from Wright’s first novel, Meditations in Green (1983), a delirious refraction of the author’s experience as an intelligence officer during the waning days of the war in Vietnam. One of the finest literary treatments of that conflict, on a par with William Eastlake’s The Bamboo Bed (1969), Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers (1974), and Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (1978), it is also one of the best first novels from a contemporary American author, appearing to rave reviews and winning the Maxwell Perkins Prize. Yet its difficulty made it something of a minority taste; indeed, while Wright has been warmly praised by luminaries such as Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, and Don DeLillo, he has never really had the breakout book so many have long expected from him.
The closest he’s come was his third novel, Going Native, published in 1994. This darkly funny road narrative follows the twisty trail of Wylie Jones, who abandons his bougie life in the Chicago suburbs to embark on a drug-fueled, blood-soaked odyssey. Each of the chapters highlights a different set of lonely, disconnected souls strung along a lazy westward path, with the main suspense being Wylie’s unpredictable cameo appearances in these disparate locales, popping up, like Herman Melville’s Confidence-Man, among the rich and the poor, the innocent and the debauched, and sowing random destruction in his wake. The cause of this sudden outburst of transcontinental wanderlust is never made clear, and Wylie’s bleak joyride accomplishes nothing toward the traditional road-novel goals of liberation and self-discovery. Instead, he comes to realize that the vaunted freedom of the American road is only the opposite face of aimlessness, and that the precious ego is no more than a floating cipher readily exchangeable at every highway rest stop and roadside motel (where “forgotten neon continued to hiss VACANCY VACANCY at passing strangers”). Wylie’s eerie blankness points up the basic emptiness of all the novel’s characters, whose seemingly settled lives come apart like smoke at the faintest breath of change. Wright’s diagnosis of this affectless postmodern condition is scathing: human community has “systematically broken down into isolated individuals, and then the individuals themselves into contending fragments of confusion and desire, modular selves, interchangeable units.”
Not only do the roads Wylie chases down offer no escape from this shrieking emptiness, they lead him inexorably toward its corruptly swollen vampire heart: Hollywood. His cross-country masque of identities is facilitated by the schizoid psychology modern mass culture circulates throughout the social body, pumping the image ghosts of stereotypical selves through consumers’ brains in an unending danse macabre of fungible personality. “The unsullied, unscripted experience was practically extinct,” Wright observes, and the individual was “left to wander at best through a familiar maze of distorting mirrors.” Wylie even begins to imagine that he could “feel the media microwaves bombarding his skin, as if he were being literally baked by encoded clichés.” Finally arrived in Hollywood, his parade of masks takes on a hysterical quality, becoming less a cunningly controlled facade than a form of literal possession, as he inadvertently rehearses scenes from famous noir and horror films in a fated uncontrollability akin to lycanthropy: “Things moved in his body quick as darting fish, and he understood [that] these things had not necessarily originated exclusively inside him, but had hatched elsewhere and slipped hungry and unseen through the prolific air.”
Abandoning his beloved Ford Galaxie in favor of a top-notch entertainment system, Wylie lies sleeplessly channel surfing in his beachside cottage, “hosing himself off in the daily data stream.” The “image feed was inexhaustible,” a round-the-clock bombardment of inanity and violence that has so thoroughly pervaded mundane life as to render it cartoonlike (literally — one of Wylie’s fugitive selves is the eponymous, hapless coyote). In response, Wright’s characters have become couch-potato connoisseurs of mass-cultural production, so “bewitched by the provocative incoherence the television was shooting” into them that they have little trouble — indeed, they eagerly busy themselves — “deconstructing an ironic slasher film” or impersonating Robert De Niro, all the while haunted by that “spectator within a spectator within a spectator, that built-in audience inside every media child’s head,” which is the only intersubjective connection remaining in this ethically wasted world. Even sexual desire has been infiltrated and captured by media apparatuses, to the point that some couples “claimed to be unable to make love without a camera present” while others “were becoming aroused in electronics stores.” Mutually abrasive solitudes trapped behind the flickering screens of private consciousness, they have grown anesthetized to all feeling save the unshakable fretting lure of violence.
Wright’s new novel, his first in 14 years, is a kind of mutant sequel to Going Native, taking the author’s indictment of the moral vacancy at the heart of American consumer culture to its logical endpoint (if not ad absurdum). Once again, the central premise is simple: our sad-sack hero, while out walking in the city, stumbles across a canvas bag filled with cash, which permits him and his wife to lead a life of luxury — until the billionaire who lost the bag ruthlessly hunts them down. This hackneyed noir scenario, which a pulpster like Cornell Woolrich would have tossed off in 20 pages, provides the tenuous backbone for a lengthy series of vignettes, many of them quite hilarious, all geared to expose the money-mad vacuity at the heart of modern consumerism.
Where Going Native merely suggested that mass culture was transforming the United States into a cartoon wasteland, Processed Cheese is that loud, lurid dystopia in the pixelated (and pixilated) flesh. Indeed, the tale seems to be set in some weird kind of alternate reality, where characters with names like TwoForOne and Linoleum live in neighborhoods like High Falutin Heights, set amidst the Bric-A-Brac mountains or beside the ReadyToWear River, eat food such as “seasoned melody sticks” washed down with NothingCola (“no calories, no vitamins, no nutrients. It tasted real good”), drive luxury cars like the GalacticCloudTouringConfiguration, vote for the Frightened White Man’s Flying Freedom Freedom Party, go on “shopping rampages” in stores like Clawfort & Residue and TheTaintedBarrel, and so on. Wright pretty much gives the game away when he has a character comment: “We should all just be named BuyMyStuff [and] be done with it.”
The satire of an ad-saturated, media-distracted, money-dominated society could not, in fact, be broader, and in the hands of a lesser writer, it could easily come across as ludicrous and off-putting. There are times, frankly, when it does, though Wright’s fierce commitment to his hyperbolic lampoonery carried me along, even if it never quite won me over. The novel owes its success to the fact that, just when you think the manic raillery can’t go any further, it plunges screaming over the edge: our protagonists — Graveyard and his wife, Ambience — don’t just metaphorically wallow in their newfound wealth, in the “wunnerful, wunnerful, fabulous, fantastical mojo of money,” they literally do so, gamboling in bed with piles of cash and masturbating with handfuls of hundreds, while our billionaire villain — MisterMenu, “CEO of NationalProcedures, a division of GlobularSystems, which was an affiliate of TheConsternationGroup, a branch of ProjectileStrategies, which was a wholly owned subsidiary of Divinicom, which owned everything” — is so invested in the elite status conferred by his vast wealth that, in a scene at once comic and excruciating, he hires a young actress to strip naked and gag down $50 bills while he pleasures himself. To evoke this depraved excess, Wright abandons his typically labyrinthine, dreamlike style in favor of starkly simple prose limning scenes of such generic banality that even the characters know they’re preprogrammed. Here, for instance, is how Graveyard and his friend Herringbone respond to a porn video:
The naked people did what naked people do when a camera is placed in front of them. The guys made the comments guys make when looking at naked people.
Then Graveyard said, “Wanna go look at some guns?”
Because of course, this being a send-up of consumption-crazed America, there are guns. A whole bagful of them, in fact, which — along with the sack of money — are the only possessions Graveyard and Ambience take with them when they flee Mammoth City just steps ahead of MisterMenu’s goons (led by the sinister smiler, Mr. BlisterPac). They take the LipLock40A and the Smashnikov500AK, they take the “modified select BallBuster 480/90” and the “MadderRose114 with moonscape sights and an insect-shell finish,” they take the MojoMaster and the StreetCleaner and other high-tech toys “with enough add-ons to impress a child.” They take them to Bullets ’N’ Brunch, a burger joint-cum-shooting range in Randomburg, a snoozy town where the couple lies low for a while with Graveyard’s parents, Roulette and Carousel, and they take them on their final desperate flight, a shoot-’em-up car chase worthy of such blockbuster movies as Interstitial and Five Wet Rats on a Log, featuring BurlyMuffins doing his aging “muscle-and-gun routine.” It’s a testament to Wright’s storytelling skills that this bloody finale, while as preposterously over-the-top as everything else in the book, is genuinely suspenseful and actually rather moving, in large part because our protagonists revel in the clichéd denouement even as they perceive its inadequacy to the realities of true danger and painful death:
This wasn’t really real. This was a flick he’d seen before. Many times before. With an audience. In a darkened theater. Actually being in the cast — in a starring role, yet — occupied an entirely different level of being. […]
They shared a look, all their lives summed up in the silence. “See you in hell,” she said. She’d always wanted to say that. Now she had.
Unfortunately, Wright’s arraignment of the gibbering inanities of mass consumption doesn’t have quite the bite Going Native had, in large part because the popular mediascape has so metastasized in the 25 years between books that it appears to have outstripped the author’s capacity to capture it. Going Native’s critique was grounded in a remarkably thorough and totally convincing anatomy of the media ecology of the mid-1990s, a world of camcorders and videocassette players, of cable TV franchises and direct-to-video garbage — a shallow, birdbrained bath in which the author fully immersed himself before leaping out screaming. Processed Cheese, by contrast, seems to have only the sketchiest grasp of contemporary entertainment culture: there’s a lot of vapid chatter about media celebrities (such as “AllAccess, that shiny young appetite who’d won last year’s Macadamia Award for her breakout performance as the hooker turned nun turned first female president in the rom-com juggernaut One, Two, Four”), but most of these worthies are TV, film, and pop-rock stars, with only a single passing reference to a “MooTube” influencer. Everyone carries cell phones, hard-copy newspapers seem to have disappeared, and Ambience whiles away a long car ride listening to tunes on her “paper-thin DustPad,” but the transformation of consumer experience by streaming apps and social media, not to mention the World Wide Web, is barely gestured at. Most of the shopping takes place in actual brick-and-mortar stores.
Of course, a novel that took over a decade to write can hardly be expected to keep pace with the latest trends, but if the whole point is to indict a fad-driven culture that has mutated into some kind of quasi-futuristic hellscape, littering the text with what amount to sociocultural anachronisms can be more than a little embarrassing. At 73, Wright is four decades older than his protagonists, and it is perhaps a perverse tribute to say that even his ferocious satirical intelligence can’t seem to fully grasp the depths of soul-sucking stupidity into which so many of his fellow citizens have sunk.
They mostly do not read, of course, and neither do Wright’s characters. References to book culture in Processed Cheese are few and far between: Loophole, the dirtbag boyfriend of Graveyard’s stoner sister, Farrago, owns a single title — How to Become Rich in Five Easy Lessons — while Roulette, “[w]henever he wanted to expose himself to some inert pages for a change, instead of to moving images on a screen,” turns to “superhero adventure comics and/or bar guides.” The deepest engagement with extended narrative any of the characters can muster involves binge-playing first-person-shooter video games:
Farrago had already lost a leg in a battle with the vicious Razrface on Level VIII, which had necessitated a lengthy detour back to the Healing Chamber on Level II and then a further delay hunting for hidden prosthetic parts in the Wood of Mangled Dreams. But even on hobble speed she’d managed to dispatch 4,682 tiny X-shaped minions, double her Treasure Trove, and add to her collection of weaponry the difficult-to-access Meridian Blade and — everyone’s favorite — the triple-barreled Destiny Maker.
The description pulses with sarcasm (“everyone’s favorite”), but after all, when everyday life already consists of a series of elaborate scripts, why bother picking up and reading others?
Wright’s clearly personal rage at this situation is understandable given the fate of literary authors in such an aesthetically impoverished world, especially someone who has, like Wright, been pigeonholed as a “writer’s writer.” That said, Processed Cheese can be seen as something of a concession — almost a capitulation — to a postliterate culture. In the first place, it is the author’s easiest book to read, and while its truncated vocabulary and staccato sentences have, as noted, a thematic purpose, seasoned readers will likely come to miss, as I did, the engrossing streams of consciousness and gorgeous, meandering asides that marked his four previous novels, including Going Native. One of Wright’s signature strengths — evoking the sinuous psychic effects of ingesting massive quantities of controlled substances — is here telegraphically reduced to: “He clicked on the lighter. Fire. Smoke. Delirium.” You will search this new book in vain for any passage remotely like this stunning, Faulknerian sentence, from Wright’s 2006 novel The Amalgamation Polka:
The crowd drifted away, almost reluctantly, reliving in words what they’d just seen [an itinerant dentist’s demonstration], anticipating the tale they would carry home, “Mother, we went to town and saw the extraction and you should have heard the poor fool howl,” back to the farm, the dry goods store, the livery stable, the tannery and the bland succession of days so remarkable in their uniformity that existence itself could often seem to have taken on the guise of an elaborate practical joke in which the same day, with only trifling variation, was drawn round and round again like a wagonload of bricks, out the door at dawn, back in again at dusk, as there advanced over the unvarying seasons a surging sense of expectancy, a conviction profound and unshakable, that soon, soon, either now or tomorrow or the year after tomorrow (who could know when exactly?) something tremendous would arrive to redeem the quality of the day, and this belief, so indomitable, though typically half-conscious and inarticulate, was accompanied by an equally persuasive certainty that the waiting itself, the mystical devotion of attending, could serve to call forth the great something that perhaps you didn’t even know you were waiting for.
As the rustic quality of the scene suggests, The Amalgamation Polka is a historical novel (Wright’s first and only), set in and around the holocaust of the American Civil War. It is also the author’s finest book — intense and cruel and strange, written in prose of a heartbreaking beauty — and yet it sold quite poorly. No wonder it took him 14 years to release a follow-up, and no wonder that follow-up is a strident jeremiad against a culture too dumb and superficial to appreciate anything but money, guns, and bad media. The basic contours of this bitter screed were prefigured as early as Wright’s second (and second-best) novel, M31: A Family Romance (1988), where a character cynically muses:
Most everybody these days seems to have settled, settled for good credit, settled for processed cheese, settled for too damn little, if you ask me. As if we’ve already finished with this world, cleared out all the woods. But a big surprise is coming, and they’re not going to be able to handle it.
The character speaking here is the father of a kooky brood of UFO fanatics, and the “surprise” he anticipates is the arrival of a Mothership that will ferry a select few true believers off to a better world. Of course, it all ends badly, in typical Stephen Wright fashion: the man proceeds to literally lose his wife and children, staggering in a hallucinatory daze to a sordid death. But, along the way, he could at least feel the pull of a utopian lure, however wacky it might be, the same yearning for a vivid, transfiguring “something” the crowd in Amalgamation Polka expectantly awaits, only to be disappointed. Even the semi-feral droids populating Going Native hunger for alternatives to their empty-headed present, indulging fantasies of escape to exotic locales where they can experience “a new, unaccustomed body; a bright, unveiled self.” No such amorphous longings agitate the characters in Wright’s latest novel: why ache for utopia when you already inhabit a paradise of getting and spending, an ersatz wonderland of lust and naked greed? “Life is poison,” Roulette tells his son. “Cash is the antidote.”
Processed Cheese is one of those novels, like J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973) and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991), that, in its Swiftian fury, is easy to admire but hard to really like, in large part because the reader feels uneasily implicated in the satire. This book doesn’t just hate the kind of nation America has become, it despises us all for our complicity in it. And we totally deserve it.
Rob Latham is a LARB senior editor.
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