Saturday, October 26, 2013

Book Review: Topiary

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What a disturbing book!  Not a great classic, but a potentially powerful tale in our time.  Contrary to some reviewers I found this non-traditional parable readable, and what I understood I found disturbing.  Topiary is set in a nightmarish version of our own world and New York City in particular, where the technocratic engines of society (reduced from their familiar branding to singular titular entities: The Nation, The City, The University, Big Media, Tree of Knowledge Incorporated, The Network, The Infocracy) churn forward like a monstrous machine with no organic life left in them at all.

The identity of the protagonist resonated with me.  He is a younger man (and a bit of a hack in school, not a true artist) who worked at an ad agency (rather The Ad Agency!) producing pure talk and false images to incite desire. Lost and disillusioned by this work, he quits become Plantman, the maintainer of corporate flora.  His travels then take him through the offices and personalities of this nightmarish world, maintaining the few spots of life still found among the high rises where only money lives.  Though I have more hope for its value, I feel a bit lost and disillusioned in corporate knowledge work myself.  It sometimes runs contrary to the values and environment I held dear growing up, and those that people have lived with for a hundreds of thousands of years; perhaps I'm also meant to be a Plantman?

One of the issues I struggle with in my work (system software development) is separating out the accidental difficulties from the essential.  One item that stresses me greatly that seems almost entirely accidental is the working conditions; a cubicle to sit in in a nearly windowless building for roughly fixed hours per day.  Our buildings are interspersed with green walkways, and one can escape with a laptop to work outside the usual box, but I keenly feel the alienation and isolation from our ecosphere that Plantman mourns.

This novel is as a trip through our own contemporary society, particularly the elements perceived as admirable, powerful and influential, without the benefit of our myths, heroes and culture to cover the sharp edges.  Plantman is particularly critical of the role of media in both commercialism and nationalism.

With shame, I remember my attitudes as a younger man when America first invaded Iraq.  Even without television, I remember listening to radio coverage of our devastating opening bombardment (Shock and Awe?  What egotistical merda of a name is that?) with cheerful, tidy nationalistic pride.  Over the course of Topiary, The Nation wages a highly televised, one-sided The War with a Rogue Regime.  It blasts on prime-time in HD, and shows on giant televisions in the gym for employees to pump their body too.  There is little discussion about what weighty concern, grave necessity, or painful tortured moral cause led The Nation into war; it is nearly a media production to unite The Nation and The Citizens.

The crass, self-conscious use of artistic methods and expressions to incite desires and drive sales for private profit is a subject of intense criticism in Topiary.  Plantman's first soul-draining job is as a copy-writer.

As I see the world, we put a dangerous load of fragile ecosystems and non-renewable resources that may well doom us.  Buddhism and other traditions teach that one of the primary weaknesses of human nature is our predilection to desire that which we do not have; we always want more, more, more!  Even with little natural encouragement.  We also have a foolish proclivity to always seek novelty and fit images, roles, and groups that our presented to us.

To then dedicate the talents, energy, and effort of intelligent, driven people to exacerbate these natural weaknesses, spurring higher consumption and greater drain on our shared planetary resources, is irresponsible and unethical.  Consumeristic drives say that a product can balm some wound inside of us, can provide meaning, or makes us the people that we want to be.  In Topiary, Plantman's prime work as a copy-writer is EARN, a polished but completely crass ad campaign for a designer perfume that comports to be bottled sexual desire.  The cynical centerpiece is a print of a naturalistic wedding of unattainably beautiful beings entitled "EARN the moment.  Forever".

Many of cultural criticisms I've mentioned are well-worn to astute observers, but Topiary, aided by it's non-traditional syntax and narrative structure and dystopian subversion of modern life, relays them with a freshness and immersively disturbing quality that is like plunging your head into an ice-cold bucket and being held under unable to breathe.  The overriding arc of the book is that the frenzy, complexity, impersonal economics, and mechanization of modernity squeezes out the life in the world and in us.  Topiary highlights the scope of the changes we should make in how we live, the consequences each of us face for acting without caring or thinking, and the despair that could await us if we don't act to live our lives and change our world for the better.

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