Sensation Machines by Adam Wilson

So often we are presented with futuristic dystopian novels that rely on boarding a narrative train whose tracks are worn down by the jet-set cars that have traveled on the tracks before them. They’re boringly similar. Then, we read books that divert from those tropes like Cormac McCarthy whose world presents a cannibalistic horror embodied by Alex Jones who unintentionally commented on his own potential cannibalistic future and didn’t realize there was a connection until he saw the movie on DVD, wished he had seen it at the movie theater, and opined on its nonfiction narrative of the future.

But then, at times, there comes a unique dystopian story unlike those that came before it. A story that portrays a nonfiction of our current horror by portraying life just as it is. In a way, presenting the Alex Jones presenting his narrative about cryptocurrencies and wishing for a cannibalistic future rather than constructing a new world to fear.

Adam Wilson’s Sensation Machines is just that. A dystopian present of complex characters examining the various ways we are shackled to the narrative train of our horrific present. Our fears of poverty, sexual repression, the reality of indulging in our urges, living with a lack of purpose, the potential lack of support when you learn you don’t know someone as well as you think you do, and so many more existential terrors build this beautifully written character-driven novel.

The book is a slant-portrait of our current age and hinges deeply on the social unrest we are currently experiencing on a daily basis. Our artificial intelligence, artificial currency, post-occupy wall street world sets the oculus stage for Wendy and Michael Mixner’s doomed marriage, and we are pulled into the terror and delusion of their lives reflecting a stark, ironic ennui of our era. Murder, drugs, sex, technology, and the fleeting value of what we spend our whole lives working for are presented in a striking mirror to the experiences of the past twenty years as if anything could be done to pull us up from drowning in modern existence.

This was an incredible book, and Wilson’s methodology in approaching his story makes it difficult to pigeonhole it into any single given genre. His prose is taut, his characters are as solid as you and I but with souls and neuroses as shivery as a Roz Chast gags, and with thematic implications that accuse all of us of insatiably charging forward into a future that is sure to work us to death if we don’t kill one another first. Everything is fleeting, of course, but Wilson’s novel has an uncanny ability to effortlessly set us on the cheese-grater of the hedonistic cycle alongside his tragic characters, and like them, we are completely unaware of it until it is much too late.

Graphic CC BY-SA 4.0 by Almostnow, Wikimedia Commons.

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