- Trapped in the Complex
260 Pages; Print, $16.00
We’ve already reached the level of dystopia where corporations are considered people. Now, imagine if they were also your landlords. That’s true in the world of Clayton Draper, the misanthropic protagonist of Rob Reynolds’ debut novel Wire Mother Monkey Baby. Ostensibly Clay’s journal, the book tracks Clay’s life as he moves into The Complex, a Texas housing development subsidized by Kool Kola. This whimsically spelled megacorporation enforces Clay’s daily soda consumption, blasts advertising jingles and commercials into his unit, and sets out to control the minutiae of his life in a thousand invasive ways.
With Clay, a self-loathing near-recluse, as its protagonist, Wire Mother Monkey Baby luxuriates in its exploration of isolation. Clay’s antipathy for the shallow pleasures of consumerism is rivaled only by his obsessive, frustrated ruminations on loneliness. The book’s title nods to this, referencing Harry Harlow’s famous experiments on social isolation in monkeys. Clay’s extensive journaling is an attempt to cope with this modernity-induced seclusion. He breaks the fourth wall to address the journal—and by extension the reader—directly, narrating his attempts to find connection and fulfillment in The Complex.
However, Clay’s attempts at connection feel as shallow and isolated as the world itself. He shops. He reads. He quotes at length from his reading: in text, in footnotes (the likelihood of someone footnoting their journal is questionable, but let that go), and in a commonplace book of erudite quotations printed at the end of the novel. He thinks about having sex and doesn’t. He thinks about working and barely does. He thinks about music and bemoans the youth. He thinks about sadness, about isolation, about morality. He thinks about thinking. So far as the book has a plot, it consists of nonevents, missed opportunities, and procrastination.
This crushing introspection is clearly deliberate, an example of form mirroring theme. Clay suffers from loneliness, depression, and isolation, all of which drive him into inaction. No surprise, then, that the journal of such a person would be navel-gazing, depressing, and static. But while the intent is logical, the effect of this structure is numbing at best, aggravating at worst. The book’s plot doesn’t just fail to get off the ground, it stubbornly fails to make the attempt, as if action or change or movement are not things books are supposed to deal with.
Reynolds seems to revel in the notion of writing a book to nowhere. He tucks self-referential asides throughout Clay’s story, almost taunting the unhappy reader who expects a narrative. Clay keeps a pair of guns in his closet, but as he tells us, “I keep the pistol’s clip loaded but set beside its partner, a dummy in the chamber, lest I subconsciously set up the Chekhovian expectation of a later act.” Surprise, surprise: the pistols never fire. Laying it on thicker, Clay hangs a portrait of Samuel Beckett on the wall, “…long-dead Beckett frowning from his photo, Beckett with his bad bouffant….” The reader becomes an unwilling Vladimir or Estragon, shanghaied into waiting for a Godot—in this case, a plot—that gleefully fails to arrive.
The reader is treated to brief flashes of action, and the book shines in those moments. Just when the plot-starved reader has begun to despair, enter Clay’s wealthy upstairs neighbor, Jonathan Brood. In perhaps the book’s most dramatic moment, Brood drops down into Clay’s bathroom and hoists his appliances and furniture up through the ceiling tiles, though the motives of this Mission: Impossible-style heist are never fully explained. An interesting, charismatic character, and a gentleman thief on top of it? After spending almost a hundred pages with no one but Clay, this feels like a breath of fresh air. Certainly, Brood’s scenes in the latter half of the novel are entertaining. However, there simply aren’t enough to counteract the tedium of Clay’s repetitive, circular existence in The Complex.
Beyond Clay, Brood, and a...