July 12, 2019
Science and fiction both ask: how real can our fantasies become?
This question sits at the center of Shane Jones’ cool, intricate, and cutting novel, Vincent and Alice and Alice. Divorced Guy Vincent is stuck working his State Job in an only slightly more dystopian America, 2017. (We get a sense of his alienation from Jones’ DeLilloisms–Vincent works in “the Zone” and imagines “a conference call with all of America on it”—while the novel’s Arbitrarily Capitalized Words imply the pervasive influence that unearned and random authority exerts in our corporate and political worlds.) Vincent works a job he hates so he can retire in twenty years. His wife Alice has left him so she can live a meaningful life (she works with refugees). Who could blame her?
Vincent doesn’t. Vincent gets it. Vincent’s perfectly resigned to an empty life and yearning after Alice. But then, a new program that promises to increase worker productivity chooses him as a test subject. The program, PER, is headed by Dorian Blood, whose physical touch is “motherly.” He gives Vincent pills and a gold watch and tells him he’ll be living his ideal life in his mind while in objective reality he’ll become the most productive worker his office has ever seen. Vincent “work[s] without a break or speaking a word” for days and days and pages and pages and finally comes home to find Alice, who’s back and in love with him again.
New Alice is as real as the former Alice ever was to Vincent, which isn’t much. Late in the novel, Vincent remembers how “Divorcer Alice said I viewed her not as a person, but a pliable piece in my reality, a thing to place meaning onto”—in other words, not a person but a character in the novel in his head. New Alice is visible to Vincent alone, although he experiences her as completely real. Some obscure combination of drugs and technology is behind this hallucination, courtesy of PER. Vincent has achieved Gatsby’s dream: she’s back, and he’s back in the past with her. Then, of course, the real Alice returns. Vincent is faced with the dilemma of leaving his wife for his wife. He must escape from his escapist fantasy.
Meanwhile, shadowy forces engage in a covert war for Vincent’s soul. Supporting figures here include the wise vagabond Elderly (whose stuffed animal is named Millionaire); the sick, then kidnapped, then dead dog Rudy; and double agent Sergeant Bell, who poses as a cop but is likely keeping tabs on Vincent for Dorian Blood. If there is an antagonist here, their aim is to keep Vincent feeling good. As Updike said, “America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy”. I think Jones agrees, but (correctly) understands “happiness” to be the good donkey’s carrot. The people trying to make you happy want something in return: you.
One of the unique achievements of Vincent and Alice and Alice is that it understands the wonder has gone out of scientific and artistic fantasies; they are no sooner created than leveraged to control a population. Anything new is used to prop up the status quo. Having internalized this, Jones has written a jaded, post-Saunders, no-happy-ending satire of capitalism that captures the numbness of living in a world where anything’s possible. All sci-fi should be so deadpan and honest.
The timeline of the novel ends on the first page and with Alice. We’re treated to one page from her perspective, in 2037, which is when Vincent himself should be retired. This elliptical page leads us to believe that Alice herself has been approached by PER. Someone’s told her she can live her ideal life in her mind. But she doesn’t want to do that. She says, “I’m alone and living in reality.” Alice is not numb. Indeed, she comes to represent a life that’s not for sale; ungoverned by fantasies, Alice’s actions are informed by a clear sense of social responsibility and history as a force moving forward.
Then there’s Vincent, who says, “The days severed me slowly from the person I loved,” and “Everything is thrown into the past too quickly,” and “I run away from the real.” His melancholy comes from a sort of global divorce. It’s not just Alice he’s fallen away from but the past, the whole world. In this time-obsessed novel (dates take the place of chapter titles), Vincent is fatally sensitive to everything slipping away from him day by day. Divorce here is just a metaphor for slow death, a continual severing from everyone and everything you love. That’s the one reality the fantasies of the powerful can’t alter. Even if Alice comes back, she’s only back for now.