Vincent is just a guy, who has “just an office job” working for “the State” in the fictional town of A-ville. He used to be a painter, until “the shame of not selling paintings [made him] give up.” Unlike his namesake, he doesn’t sever his ear in the depths of despair; he enrolls in the experimental “PER” program offered by the bureaucratic Leader Dorian Blood, designed to increase worker happiness and productivity. The program requires a total devotion to data-entry, and dictates Vincent’s routine even outside of his 9-5 work, but it simultaneously walks him through his “ideal gate.” Once through his ideal gate, he carries out the same perfected routine, but feels in every way as though he is living his deepest subconscious fantasy. For most workers, this fantasy expresses itself as the material gain that we conflate with corporate success: a nicer car, a house with a pool, time to do and be nothing. For Vincent, this fantasy turns out to be exactly the same as his reality, except it includes his ex-wife Alice, an activist who left Vincent once the grayness of his work seeped out into the rest of his life.
From the beginning of the novel, Jones wedges Vincent between the opposing poles of his soul-crushing office job and his soul-crushing yearning for Alice. Vincent coasts listlessly through life, using deadpan humor as a crutch: “People are like bags, and the more problems you have the more holes in your bag.” The humor falls just short of “black,” because Vincent’s life is an unending gray: his primary function in the world is to delete all of his emails and wait to go home. This miserable anhedonia of meaningless work is set in contrast to “real” suffering; the immigrants he walks past every day, targets of hate crimes living in a literally burning world.
The horror of Vincent’s existence is compounded by his openly, patriotically racist coworkers and the inanity of their desires, which is mostly food. The coworkers repeatedly announce their desire for a quick serotonin hit of short-ribs or pizza. Initially, the job has only one upside, a massive pension after thirty years of mind-numbing routine. For Vincent, the pension is enough incentive, and the fatigue from his meaningless days is just enough to keep him from trying to change anything.
This is the book’s central condemnation, if there is one. Well before the reader is told that Vincent has “no political affiliation,” we know it. Despite his discomfort with the status quo and his depression caused by it, Vincent has never been uncomfortable enough to need actual change. He wishes that hate crimes weren’t on the rise, that Ronald Reagan wasn’t an office hero, and that Steve didn’t whip up racially motivated fervor in the office, but mostly because it’s all kind of a bummer for him. He does care about other beings, as long as they have personal relevance to him: the ragged dog Rudy, who Vincent almost manages to rescue; the supposedly homeless man named Elderly, who wields a logic of madness like a Shakespearean fool to reveal realities outside of the capitalist slog. But Vincent doesn’t really care when Alice says “deep shit about immigrants.” The allure of Vincent’s pension is such that he’ll never summon the energy to Do Something, will never choose action over Ativan, and thus will never understand the comparative ease of Alice’s 12 hour days spent working with Syrian refugees.
Ultimately, the reader does feel for Vincent. Even if his depression is a solipsistic one, he is really, truly stuck. The grayness of his work leaks out into the rest of his life and defines the shape of his entire world. It dictates his habits, preferences, sleep cycle, all these small constitutive elements of his being, until suddenly he is no longer the person with whom Alice fell in love. As soon as Vincent gave up painting, the only thing that made his life not-shitty was Alice, and given the size of Vincent’s depression, that’s a near-impossible load of not-shittiness for one human to provide, not to mention an unasked for task, and one she justifiably refuses. Without Alice, and after 9 years of close-up confrontations with the existential horrors of his office, Vincent has no willpower or reason to change his reality.
Instead, he seeks something to alleviate the slow death and “soul-sucking vortexes” of conference calls. He’s all too eager to enroll in Dorian Blood’s lotophagic PER program, and the two pages describing fantasy-Alice’s arrival are a testament to the realist narrative serving as foundation for Jones’s imaginative departures. When Vincent’s fantasy begins and his ex-wife returns, his yearning is so totalizing that for a moment, you completely forgive him. Anyone ripped from that depth of love would try to recapture it.
As the PER program progresses, and Vincent’s fantasy becomes increasingly real, he can’t contradict anything that fantasy-Alice says, lest he break a cardinal rule: “do not challenge the [ideal] gate.” If he does, the program may suddenly fail, leaving him once again devastatingly Aliceless. This requires a total submission to Alice/PER’s directive, a kind of “Giving In” that Don Gately would admire. By delegating all of his responsibility to the higher power of PER/Alice, Vincent is blissfully, blessedly free from worrying about anything else.
During the next work-week, as Vincent continues his regular work-life, a coworker offers up another prayer for food: “fuck me, fudge brownies.” That’s when you begin to reconsider Vincent’s relationship with Alice. For Vincent, Alice is no different than his coworkers’ reliance on food: an easy hit of serotonin, a temporary relief from a terrifyingly dumb life. Instead of being a person to truly live with, Alice is a “comforting pool” to live in. She was never so much a life-partner as a less-perfect precursor to PER.
The PER program proves too good to be true, and Vincent’s fantasy inevitably unravels when real-Alice comes back to A-ville. For a moment, real-Alice signals interest in Vincent, and it energizes him, and it seems like he might put an honest effort into changing. Vincent teaches a painting class for the immigrants with whom Alice works, and the reader sees a brief flash of Vincent’s former energy: he expounds about the value of art, he grows more and more excited as he completes his first painting in years, and he becomes fully and organically engaged with the work before him. And then we get a glimpse of another reason that Vincent might have abandoned art: “‘What is it?’ The [refugee] gestures vaguely toward the painting. He taps the painting with his knuckles like knocking on a door. ‘See? Does nothing.’”
The reader and Vincent both know that the refugee is not really wrong. That art, in the case of immediate distress facing the refugees, is nothing more than fanciful imagination, another subconscious expression not so dissimilar to PER, and perhaps, like PER, a fantastical refuge for the privileged.
Jones is funny throughout the novel, as well as insightful, but is at his best when creating beautifully surrealistic, aesthetically driven meanings: waterfalls pouring from computers, a man seeing half of the world and all of its computer code dripping away, constellations embedded beneath the skin of a fading memory of a loved one.
These imaginings are wonderfully pliable, allowing for diverse meanings to grow, connect with, and supplant each other. The PER program opens ontological interrogations about the worlds we “really” live in, the worlds we choose to live in, and whether or not there’s any difference. But it also pivots neatly into metaphorical representations of very human grief: when Vincent has to mentally “kill” fantasy-Alice to make room for real-Alice, fantasy-Alice doesn’t want to leave. In fact she refuses to, she retreats to the farthest, darkest corners of Vincent’s basement, and Vincent has to directly tell her that she’s not real, has to directly contradict what she would want, has to dishonor her memory within his own subconscious. Here, the human drama and the ontological questioning merge, suggesting a distance always exists between real people and the versions of them we carry within us, and privileging one is always a violence to the other. Jones creates an abstraction where killing the lingering afterimage of a loved one who’s left—the version of them that lives in your head and whispers to you throughout the day—is just as painful to watch as real violence. It’s this method of delivering meaning that is the book’s forte, and combined with the careful character study of Vincent, is more than enough to make up for the book’s looser narrative.
Vincent and Alice and Alice
by Shane Jones
Tyrant Books; 230 p.