A. D. Nauman
Soft Skull Press ($12)
by Justin Maxwell
Fear and its relationship to the human condition is a powerful current throughout A.D. Nauman's first novel Scorch, but its depths are inadequately sounded--instead we get an unanalyzed Marxist diatribe. Scorch is a reductio ad absurdum critique of free-for-all capitalism. Its characters are pseudo-willing participants in a perpetual orgy of trying to pass one's self off as a supermodel amidst a dizzying continuum of stress, television screens, and people dying with comic-book excess. The protagonist, Arel Ashe, is a librarian--in a video library of course--who stumbles onto a cache of actual books and, on reading them, discovers Marxism and a raison d'être. She must save society from itself, a spontaneous workers' revolution of one.
Unfortunately, Marxist ideas and moral epiphanies are clunkily interjected into the text and shallowly espoused- which would be fine, even believable, coming from the main character, but often they come from the narrator. The ideas are belligerently cliched: "When everyone tries to take them [safety, love, and meaning] instead of give them, they no longer exist"; "I'm very concerned about the children"; or, with complete p.c. vapidity, "A grass-roots movement to raise consciousness and challenge the oppressive capitalist system in which we live." It's occasionally hard to tell who's speaking, the 3rd person narrator or the protagonist, and the author frequently seems confused as to whether the world of the text is a reality or a potentiality.
At its best Scorch is a surreptitious comparison of the failures of the two surviving utopian ideals. Once the protagonist sets out to introduce Marxism into the world, the last two utopian methodologies go head-to-head. Both systems are defeated by the same thing: the human. Each time Arel has some success proselytizing for the revolution, she falls into the capitalist sloganism of the system she's trying to subvert. When she gains the illusion of some upward mobility she instantly begins to invoke the same motivational-speakerisms of the workaholic bourgeoisie. She lives in a mad-house of capitalism. Arel is continually entranced by the idea of herself as an individual and not able to see herself as part of a cultural collective, Marxist or capitalist. She, like everyone else in the text, has fallen into a kind of collective somnambulism. Nauman has given us a world of Situationalist sleep, a world of pop-culture lemmings.
Both social systems fail--Marxism because it can't accommodate the desire for personal success, and capitalism because it's nothing more than an opiate, short term happiness followed by profound discontentment and the supercession of the fix over all else. We are continually shown how the same fear that creates culture brings about culture's destruction. What that fear is or how it works is never engaged. Nauman knows her characters participate in their hyper-culture to quell some kind of internal fear, but she never truly explores this essentially human element.
Scorch, had it smoothly postulated a new and viable socio-economic system, could have been revolutionary and groundbreaking, but then it wouldn't be a dystopia. In the end Arel dies, casually and violently burned to death by a former co-worker in a scene of weak and obvious irony. Although Scorch has moments of powerful and well-worked prose, the author is never able to see her own ideas in a broad enough scope to truly get to the essence of the human in society. Nauman wrote an entertaining book about perilous economics, never realizing that she needed to write a perceptual book about her true subject, the genesis of culture.