This is a novel fundamentally concerned with “total representation.” Representation is such a squelchy topic, especially in literature, because like everything else in art, life, physics, and pretty much everything else, there is a gap between reality and representation of reality.
In this novel, which is a kind of futuristic steampunk, a sort of what if a steampunk past made it to the future. Also, it’s sort of like what if there’s a kind of lateral time-line. So think Oryx and Crake, but written by David Foster Wallace, but also, there’s not a real reality that it’s based on. Does it make sense yet?
Ok, hold on. So it’s like imagine the world. Got it? Now refract the light. Now turn it back on itself.
OK, so this is barely even an attempt to understand.
So in this novel, a really rich dude with a daughter has tried to recreate himself and his life in the vein of The Tempest, but like as in many things, once the object is in place and known, it can’t actually be recreated. Shakespeare’s play works in part because although it’s an intentional piece of art, it’s not trying to be art. This novel doesn’t deal with itself as if IT is a kind of art, but instead as if it’s trying to show what fails when intentional pieces of art are too intentional.
And so the world of this novel is TOO constructed. On purpose. It’s hard to see it for what it is.
So the protagonist of this novel is NOT Caliban and not Ferdinand, but is in a world full of Calibans and Ferdinands. Instead, he’s a writer in a greeting card factory. This becomes a kind of metaphor for everything. A false creative attempt to capture and represent sentiment in a succinct manner, creating instead a falsely felt sentiment, a simulacrum of actual feeling. And so this job, like the rest of the novel, fails at capturing life in any real sense. Because the protagonist is in a fabrication of sentiment and the world created by the fake Prospero is as well. Nothing is real but everything is trying to be real.
And it’s kind of funny.
I cannot say that you’d like this novel is you liked Liz Moore’s The Known World. But I do think you’d like Dexter Palmer’s other novel Version Control, and then if you like that, you might like this one too.