“Trotsky,” the code-named narrator of Peter Darbyshire’s sophomore novel, is a lot like the unnamed protagonist of Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel Fight Club. He’s urban, disgruntled, savvy, aimless, underpaid, and deeply skeptical of the corporate superstructure that defines his life. He’s also the protagonist of an action-packed, rollicking story that serves as a biting satire of consumerism, capitalism, affluenza, and fame.
Trotsky works in the “neuromarketing department” of Adsenses, a market research company. Every day, he and his co-workers – “Reagan,” “Thatcher,” and “Nader” – are thrust into full-body MRI machines where all their reactions to holographic advertising stimuli are recorded. In an attempt to counteract the pre-fabricated experiences of the pod, Trotsky begins to seek authentic experiences. He buys a police scanner and insinuates himself into increasingly horrific accident scenes, comforting the victims, impersonating a paramedic, and eventually stealing victims’ keys and assuming their lives for a while.
Trotsky meets up with – or hallucinates? – The Resistance, which aims to jam corporate culture, and Holiday, the narcissistic self-proclaimed “star” of a series of security-cam videos. There is also an underground lounge called Social, which nobody talks about. (It’s like Fight Club without the fists.) Villains become heroes in the hyper-mediated world of Panoptical, the novel’s online disaster-video hybrid of YouTube and World’s Wildest Police Videos. In the era of reality television and ubiquitous surveillance cameras, Darbyshire suggests, we are all the stars of our own show – or somebody else’s. Trotsky, who begins walking around in an Andy Warhol mask, inadvertently becomes the face of The Resistance, which then rebrands itself The Warhol Gang.
Darbyshire’s novel, with its echoes not only of Palahniuk but of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and David Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash, is an exploration of consumer culture and technology. He implies that we’re so inundated with messages about who we should be – and the products that will help us become those people – that we have lost sight of who we truly are; we no longer have an inner life. Mannequins are a recurring metaphor for what we’ve become – hollow inside. Trotsky’s travails suggest that technology, ostensibly there to make our lives easier, also isolates us and makes us more malleable to marketers’ messages.