By Alexander Garros and Aleksei Evdokimov
In Great Expectations Charles Dickens is usually credited with having creating a portrait of one of the first “divided men” of the new economy. Wemmick is a clerk in Jaggers’ law office, where he conducts himself in a cool, professional, even cold-hearted and cynical manner. But when he goes home to Walworth he becomes a different man: a warm and kindly homebody whose main purpose in life is to take care of his Aged Parent.
What makes Wemmick so strange today isn’t the way he foreshadows the split personality of modern professional life, but the idea that in escaping from his day-job he becomes more fully human. Working as a law clerk requires that he be a heartless machine, but when he shucks this persona and is free to be the real Wemmick he is a loving, caring, and gentle family guy.
Why is this so strange? A lot of modern novels are concerned with the same divided self, and the contradictions between our corporate personas and the natural man. But these days when we escape from our social roles and are allowed to express a more genuine self the results aren’t as pretty. In books like American Psycho, Fight Club, and now Headcrusher, the natural man the corporate drone turns into at the end of the day isn’t a gentle Wemmick puttering about his garden, but a homicidal maniac. The pressure of keeping the different parts of their identities separate drives Patrick Bateman, Tyler Durden and Vadim Apletaev insane. The split in their personalities is so complete they even have conversations with their doppelgangers. In each of these books the line between fact and fantasy is obliterated, leaving us wondering what is most real: Their boring, conformist, soul-killing office jobs, or the ultra-violent orgies of sex and destruction orchestrated by their alter egos? What is most genuine: The role we have to play at work, or that repressed creature we keep locked up inside?
Headcrusher comes to us from Latvia, the result of a very rough, (and uncredited) British translation. Like American Psycho and Fight Club it is primarily a satire on capitalism and consumerism, which says something about globalization and literature. The “hero”, Vadim Apletaev, is stuck in a dead-end job writing “PR-mumble and business-drool” for a bank. His world view is heavily informed by his favourite film, The Matrix, whose metaphysics of exploitation he interprets as “perfectly straightforward realism.” The human race has reached a point where all of its biological needs can be satisfied, leading us to invent new kinds of meaningless activity to keep us occupied. All these people bustling about with cell phones jammed to their heads are so many mindlessly busy automatons: “a huge amount of biomass hooked on phoney stimulation . . . expending all its natural vitality working up a sweat over doing damn-all.” This energy is either grounded in useless forms of stimulation like movies and video games, or (as surplus labour) harvested by a parasitical upper class of capitalists and crooks. Our supposedly advanced civilization is a chimera, with the unrepressed natural man as Yahoo leering behind it all. Take the Internet, seventy per cent of which is porn:
Just think about it: for centuries now, ever since humanity invented scientific and technical progress for itself, since about the time of the Renaissance, it’s been scrabbling, clawing, clambering its way towards the Internet. And there it is, the crown of evolution, the first global, instant, free, uncensored means of communication in the history of Homo sapiens, an inexhaustible reservoir of knowledge, a planetary nervous system . . . A portrait, cast from our own selves, so to speak. A generalized portrait. And what face do we see in it? The face of a mentally retarded, juvenile sex maniac. A lewd idiot. Congratulations! Humanity, my friend, I’m proud of you!
When Vadim rejects the dream world of the Matrix his reptilian doppelganger takes over and the book becomes the bloody revenge fantasy of a juvenile sex maniac. Shootouts, murder, and graphic, minutely described dismemberments are followed by sex romps with models and Hollywood starlets. In all of this Vadim isn’t rebelling against the artificial stimulation of the Matrix, but rather short-circuiting inside it. His overstimulated adventures are equal parts Quentin Tarentino and first-person-shooter video game (one of which, “Headcrusher,” gives the book its title). Rejecting the real world as a dead simulacrum, he overdoses on pop culture. There is no natural man left to get back to.
Oh, Wemmick. Oh, humanity!
Review first published August 27, 2005.