Sunday, March 4, 2012

Review: The Warhol Gang, by Peter Darbyshire

What can we say about books, even demonstrably good books, that wear their influences on the outside? Are we to diminish them just because they bow so low to their antecedents? Think of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, a novel that is in no way lessened by the obvious fingerprints left all over it by Nabokov, Rushdie and Amis. In fact, influence may be the sincerest form of progress. After all, could there by any Kafka without Dostoyevsky? How far does Beckett get without Joyce?

Peter Darbyshire’s The Warhol Gang is one of those books that doesn’t make any attempt to hide its influences – in this case, we’re talking about the works of JG Ballard and Chuck Palahniuk: Ballard for the magnification of consumer and media culture and its odious effects on the human psyche; Palahniuk for the stripped down, smash-mouth writing style. Ballard once described himself as nothing more or less than a scientist dissecting the cadaver of the human condition. I doubt Darbyshire would go that far in assessing his own work; indeed, it often feels like The Warhol Gang is deliberately excluding the human condition because it doesn’t want to get its hands dirty. But in terms of a novel that feeds off the vacuum-sealed reality it has created for itself, the book succeeds in what it’s attempting to do. What’s more, it’s also a ripping good read.

The Warhol Gang tells the story of a man named “Trotsky” (at least, that’s what it says on his name tag at work, though it has no actual relation to his real name) who, in some possible future or warped version of the present, is employed by a market research company that uses hologram-generating pods on its employees to test products for future consumers. It’s commercialism taken to the point of neurosis, since Trotsky feels like little more than an automaton placed in full servitude of the reality that his employer is carving out for him and for the world at large.

Yet he soon learns of a rebellion brewing against this hyper-inauthentic society. With a strident (if somewhat vague) mantra “Resist!” spray-painted across various ads and products, the revolution declares itself in opposition to the hyper-consumerism that has taken over the world. Trotsky soon falls in with members of this opposition, and through various highly publicized acts of disobedience and criminality they find themselves dubbed the Warhol Gang.

The novel then follows an engaging if somewhat predictable track. The Warhol Gang’s antics get increasingly out of control and soon it too becomes obsessed with its own positioning and ‘brand’ in the eyes of society. Soon copycat groups that have nothing to do with the gang’s mandate (if they ever had one to begin with) begin committing more and more violent crimes in their name. The group loses its sense of itself and Trotsky begins to think the gang is morphing into everything it hates. There’s more Animal Farm to this (“Four legs good … two legs better!”) than there is Fight Club, by Darbyshire manages the arc of Trotsky’s realizations wonderfully.

The problem with this novel, though, is that it often feels as if Trotsky is the only one with any sense of what it means to be human. Everyone else, it seems, is a kind of robot too over-programmed to come to the realizations that Trotsky comes to. There isn’t, to make a Ballardian allusion, the messiness of the human condition to deal with here. The morality play that could exist falls flat because no one but Trotsky seems capable of feeling much beyond what society wants them to feel.

Having said all that, Darbyshire is a sharp satirist and taut writer who knows how to keep his chapters moving along with short, percussive clips. The Warhol Gang is fast and fast-paced, and can be read strictly at the level of a post-modern adventure novel. There may be something cold, even blasé, left in its wake, but perhaps that’s okay. Perhaps that’s how it separates itself from the books and the writers that have influenced it.

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