Sunday, June 26, 2022

Book Review: Appliance, by JO Morgan

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This captivating, fabulous novel by JO Morgan tells the coming-of-age story of a mysterious reinvented machine, writes Stuart Kelly

Although JO Morgan was a very successful poet, this is his first major publishing novel. One question that might cross your mind is, “Is this a novel?” It has 11 prose chapters and a narrative that begins and ends. But in each section we have different protagonists and there is only one constant: one machine. As far as the story arc goes, forget about the fugitive humans because the real story is about how technology changes, adapts, transforms, grows and warps us in its own way. It’s the binding novel of something inhuman, and it’s terrifying.

It begins by throwing the reader off guard. Instead of a sci-fi setting, we arrive at a dreary and tired suburban setting. The style harmonized with various dramatic works I love – early Pinter from The Birthday Party, Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular or NF Simpson’s One Way Pendulum. In Morgan’s case, it’s the pompous Mr Pearson and his irritable wife Mrs Pearson – neither of whom have first names – and the arrival of the device. Mr. Pearson works in Human Resources and is delighted to have been chosen to test the new thing. It unsettles, confuses, and confuses them both; and the reader wonders what the device is and what it does. Their relationship is sketched with caustic precision: he is blusteringly self-confident, she is taciturn and subversive. The resolution comes, and it is a masterpiece by Bathos; that a plastic spoon that wasn’t in the machine is now in the machine. And then it’s gone again. The company Mr. Pearson works for appears to be on the verge of developing a device that can (not immediately) transport matter. That he works in HR is a very knowing note. “Human Resources” may have been too obvious, but the human and the non-human have had their first collision.

Throughout the book we are given snapshots of life as technology advances, from the first human subjects to the man who designed the transporter who wonders how much else he could do, to the journalist who who thinks the system hides a bug the student who finds the bug in the code too much (and weird and horrible) embarrassment. The idea of ​​the philosophical novel is often seen as pretentious, and Morgan’s skill is that in each brief vignette we create an affective relationship with those engaged in this paradigm shift in human behavior and interaction. Some are genuinely shocking, others are absurdly tender. As if the reader were in an optician, everyone puts different glasses on their eyes and asks: “Better or worse?”

The idea of ​​perfect replication is not new, nor are the philosophical problems involved. In one chapter, an elderly woman transports her belongings to a new home and asks a fundamental question: is what arrives what was sent, or a copy (the word “pure” becomes difficult) of it? I recalled seeing the “cleansed” version of Carlo Crivelli’s preaching half a lifetime ago and wondering even then if removing the attachments of age, despite the glory of gold, was some form of sanitizing history. Maybe the dust and the candle smoke and the roots were actually part of what it was now. This is not a new or original thought. Walter Benjamin fretted about this in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Dr. McCoy of “Star Trek” was notoriously skeptical about using a transporter, and numerous plots included the implication of taking things apart and putting them back together. Kraken by China Miéville has an extensive riff on a character who has a transporter and has failed to notice the subject being disintegrated (i.e. killed) and then restored, and thus being haunted by the ghosts of his former self.

Morgan’s real ability is finding the poetry of the puzzle – he almost bypasses the science parts with an eerie encounter with someone who knows more than he lets on: the problem isn’t that it works, the problem is that it doesn’t doesn’t work. An Egyptian could construct a right triangle using 12 knots on a rope, but it takes a Pythagoras to see that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the squares of the two opposite sides.

Morgan insists on the grounding of being, on the reality of being here and being now now, in this fairytale, captivating novel. Though an air of elegy pervades the book, there is a sense of indestructible triumph: humanity, assailed by its own ingenuity, endures. At the end, in reference to speeding up development, one character says, “Why would they want to do something like that?” and the answer comes, “Just say as they could.” It’s the “because it’s there” argument for mountaineering or reaching magnetic south. Maybe, Morgan suggests, just drop it. We’re attacking reality too much.

Appliance, by JO Morgan, Jonathan Cape, £16.99

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