"I wander the mall to distract myself from whatever's wrong with me. The mall's tunnels go everywhere in the city - under the streets, up through walkways connecting office towers, into bus-station lobbies and hospital cafeterias. I don't think the mall has a beginning or an end. The mall is a part of everything or maybe everything is a part of the mall. Whatever I need is in the mall. Food courts. Clothing stores. Cinemas. I never have to leave the mall."
I don't believe Peter Darbyshire to be the greatest fan of consumerism. Not at all.
Neither is Chuck Palahniuk, at least in Fight Club
(a novel that, like it or not, The Warhol Gang is inevitably going to be compared to). But as fresh and unusual as Fight Club was (and still is, I firmly believe it holds up), Palahniuk's other works have slowly but inexorably drifted into self-parody, most evident in the lazy, trite, wafer-thin, oh-so-irredeemably-bloody-awful Tell-All. Seriously, I loves me my Chuck, but he needs to take some time off to re-evaluate.
Where was I? Right, Darbyshire. Like Palahniuk (along with all great satirists such as Kurt Vonnegut and J.G. Ballard), Darbyshire is frustrated with certain aspects of society, and feels the need to point out the pointlessness of our foibles. Unlike Palahniuk, however (excepting, of course, if he takes a breather and recovers his senses), Darbyshire isn't running on empty. The Warhol Gang is a vivid, bizarre, fresh, sometimes excruciatingly incisive absurdist novel that not only marks a logical progression in satire (Swift-to-Vonnugut-to-Palahniuk-to-Darbyshire?), but should serve as a rallying point for a new generation of young fans crying out for a satire to call their own.
Darbyshire's hero is Trotsky - not that Trotsky, but rather the moniker given to an aimless young man who has wandered into a job with Adsenses, a "neuromarketing company" that blueprints/brainwashes the minds of its employees in as frightening a manner as anything since A Clockwork Orange. Each employee is provided their own code name (Reagan, Thatcher, Nader, etc.) to "remove as much of [their lives] from the process as possible."
Trotsky's life is nothing but an endless parade of consumer goods, billboards, and inexpressible greed, set in an identifiable dystopia where image and actuality share a shaky truce. His job is to sit in a pod for hours on end while images of consumer products are flashed before his eyes; his brainwave response patterns are then studied:
The walls are lined with monitors. Each one shows an image of a different brain, with glowing numbers floating in the brains.
"We study everything," Nickel tells me. "We watch your heart rate, your breathing, how much you sweat. If you get an erection, we measure it." He takes me over to one of the brains. It's mostly dark, with little spots of light that flare up here and there and then fade away. The patterns of light look random.
"Is that me?" I ask.
"This is you," Nickel says, tapping the dark parts of the brain. He points to a yellow spot that glows briefly on one side of the brain. "This is you thinking about the product."
"That's good, right?" I ask.
"It's good, but its not optimal," Nickel says.
"What would be optimal," I ask.
Nickel watches another flare. "Optimal would be if that was your entire brain," he says.
Trotsky is a natural at the job, a man seemingly destined for such a life, being an almost perfect indiscriminate consumer. His overarching memory of childhood is being lost and abandoned in a mall. The mall was and is at the very centre of his being.
But very quickly, Trotsky discovers the side-effects of his job; hallucinations of the products he sees and the people he imagines using them. His manager advise him that "some people can keep it in check by buying real products." Already unhinged with a lack of actual identity, Trotsky begins living a new life through his products, finding in them a path back to reality, but after the hallucinations return, he then graduates to the next level of reality and begins looking for accident scenes to watch people die.
And then, it gets strange. Trotsky takes up with a woman named Holiday, the "Marilyn Monroe of security videos," obsessed with becoming a star through news reports and snippets of tragedies and cellphone videos broadcast on the television program Panoptical. He discovers a secret society of nihilists living beneath the mall in another mall (A subspace mall? An old Indian burial mall?) that sets itself up as a resistance, but to what is never made clear. And when Trotsky and Holiday become 'reality' stars from an inadvertent snuff film (Trotsky clad in an Andy Warhol mask), he become the de facto face of the uprising (shades of Palahniuk's space monkeys).
Part of the great frustration (and the appeal) of The Warhol Gang is that a description of the plot is practically impossible with, well, giving the entirety of the plot away. Darbyshire twists and warps reality to suit his own needs, and as Trotsky descends into a new level of madness that may or may not be real, not a page goes by without the addition of another puzzle piece to his scattered psyche. The miracle is that none of this feels forced; considering its manic narrative structure, Darbyshire keeps a firm hand on his tale, with nary a scene wasted.
As much as The Warhol Gang is anti-consumerism, it does not come across as a screed to the ignorant masses; indeed, it condemns the ignorant masses as well. When Trotsky admits confusion as to the ultimate cause the Warhol Gang is fighting for, Holiday comments "The Warhol Gang is its own cause." I'm sure I'm not the only reader who'll flashback to the numerous clashes between protesters and police at various G20 summits across the globe upon reading those words (specifically the ones the media focus on), where the point of protest appears to be anarchy for its own sake. We feel the urge to resist, but without a plan, without an visible enemy, all we can create is chaos.
The Warhol Gang is well aware of its forebearers; echoes of Ballard and Orwell and Palahniuk ring throughout, as well as (I'm sure) many others I am unfamiliar with. Such echoes are inevitable. But the story, the style, the whole of the sum of the parts; that's Darbyshire. And it is a gloriously uncomfortable, trippy trek into a world two seconds away from ours.