God in the Machine
The epiphany machine wants to know our secrets, the ones we show to everyone but ourselves. I know the conceit well, too: we keep making the same mistakes; the pattern is obvious to everyone except ourselves, because we are too busy performing our various social scripts to know anything about the performance, or whether we are still performing, or whether we are ever not performing. But the audience knows. And today our audience is the world.
Of all the items that preface David Burr Gerrard’s second book, the one closest to epiphany is the last in the list labeled THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE USING THE EPIPHANY MACHINE: “You already know what the machine will write on your arm. That lie you’ve been telling yourself—you know what it is. … You already know whether you’re going to use the machine. So why are you still reading this?” Gerrard’s The Epiphany Machine, more so than any other novel this year, postulates an analog to our hyper-polarized, “likes for likes” exchange culture, a seesaw between the propensity to overshare and our resistance to vanquished privacy, all of them (re)cycled images of self.
How it works in the novel is simple: a user is buzzed in to a rent-controlled apartment and requests a seat beside something that resembles an antique sewing machine. After walking past velvet curtains, they take a seat, place their forearm down, and the tattoo needle tells them who they are, in pithy, cryptic koan-like statements that read like our micro-processed About Me’s, except actually true.
Gerrard’s language, too, is candid, easy, frank—a revelation on its own by much of today’s hyper-conceptual, verbose, literary standards. The succinct prose has a knack for producing its own epiphany, which is often, like good comedy, funny because it’s true.
Example 1: “One of the worst things about men is that they make it dangerous not to lie to them.”
Example 2: “Failure was something that might happen, but probably to other people, and death lay in a future so remote we would be long dead by the time it arrived.”
Example 3, which occurs only a few pages later: “This made me even madder, and also more in love with Leah, since she had now outmatched me in the two things at which every teenager wants to excel: caring and not caring.”
Example 4, in the voice of the teenage protagonist Venter’s grandmother, whom he is interviewing: “Being a housewife is a lot like running a business whose finances you have no control over.”
Example 5: “I tried to think, one of my favorite ways of not thinking.”
Gerrard’s several voices, in turning a circle around our affinity for self-delusion (and sometimes even self-sabotage) are always refreshingly honest, never more so than when the truth serum is offered to Venter himself, during a conversation between father and son:
“Why didn’t you tell me how sick she was?”
He was pulling out of the driveway now. “She’s been sick for years. If you wanted to know, you would have known.”
“That’s not true,” I said, “and you’re an asshole.” What I was actually thinking was that it was true and that I was an asshole. I had noticed that my grandmother was sick and had paid no attention. I had barely even asked what was wrong with her.
If the characters didn’t have the epiphany machine, they would have to rely on interaction with others to learn about who they really are. So it makes sense, in our age of individually-curated knowledge and isolated recreation, to seek self(help) in a machine instead of other humans. The judgement, in 2017 and in years past, of course, is free. The same is true in Gerrard’s novel, as Adam Lyons, the machine’s sole operator and chief of the Rubicon Epiphany Corporation, makes explicit. His visitors aren’t customers; they are guests. He takes donations, not a fee. And when his guests receive their statements of self on their forearms, it’s up to them to do something about it. As in real life, machines can only give us so much. The rest, in a sense, is man-made. Adam explains this to a client who receives DOES NOT STAND HIS GROUND on his arm.
Sometimes the tattoo points you in the direction of what you most resent about yourself and think you should change, but is in fact the best part of you. Maybe what your son needs is for you not to stand your ground. I certainly don’t know that. I don’t know anything. The machine doesn’t know anything. Only you know. Your tattoo is there to help you know what you know.… We tell people who they are. Sometimes that helps people become better. Often not.
The line between truth and beauty is never really clear—in real life, in the book, and much of The Epiphany Machine, as well as the machine itself, grapples with this relationship from the opening chapters. “You’d rather believe pretty things than the truth,” one best friend tells the other. “You don’t know things anywhere,” a third tells Venter, quoting a character in The Glass Menagerie. “You live in a dream; you manufacture illusions.” Earlier, Venter and his best friend, Ishmael consider what comes first, truth or beauty, in their love—or lust—for Leah, the one who is so often literally between them. Are truth and beauty mutually exclusive, or do they depend on each other for their singular strengths? The question reflects the novel’s own pursuit of authenticity and ethics: Venter’s coming-of-age in nineties New York City and his search for his mother, who abandoned him as a baby after receiving her own epiphany: ABANDONS WHAT MATTERS MOST. The ugly truth is the one we can only tell ourselves when we’re alone, before sleep or upon waking, in private or at least in solitude. Then again, the truth will set you free, as it does for users who attend weekly meetings to talk about their lives post-epiphany: “We’re all like criminals who have been caught,” someone replies after Venter acknowledges the anxiety of most social situations in which “everyone is worried that everyone else sees through them to their deepest, most secret flaw.” Gerrard’s writing is free of hackneyed aphorisms and yet so much of what he is exploring—and exposing—has the a-ha winking moment of a tea bag’s inscription, even the bitter aftertaste that signifies its resonance.
The novel moves from testimonials about the epiphany machine to Venter’s first-person narrative, to excerpts from books about the epiphany machine, to newspaper reports detailing current events, to e-mails and AIM conversations between close friends and former lovers, all under the specter of more scarlet lettering: judgement, shame, and punishment; World War I, the Holocaust, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and ultimately, the terror attacks on September 11, 2001.
Every major character is likeable because each one is flawed and deeply believable. We believe them because, in a story about self-knowledge, their flaws, unbeknownst to many of them, are acutely visible to each of us—literally inscribed on the flesh as well as evoked in narrative—but also in a metaphysical way, affirming the legitimacy of the machine we are reading about: a literary version of big data analytics. The effect of our own voyeurism as reader, coupled with issues of meme culture and mob mentality provoked by the plot, begs the question of motive. Why do we do the things we do? Because we want to do them,1 or because we think other people will like us more if we do them?2 To see ourselves for who we really are, we’d have to ask ourselves the questions that often go unspoken. What’s the difference between tattooing yourself with the truth and saying it out loud? Both have potential illuminating outcomes, as Venter learns before he himself decides to use the machine: “‘My grandmother’s not going to live to see my eighteenth birthday,’ I said. I hadn’t realized this until I said it, and the knowledge reduced me to sobs.” And several chapters later, “The worst thing about words is that they mean something.”
Venter’s decision to put his own arm under the epiphany machine results in his realization of being DEPENDENT ON THE OPINION OF OTHERS, a fact or fate that, only pages earlier, he criticizes, after observing a man in a business suit with the same tattoo leaning on a friend to ask, “I’m not DEPENDENT ON THE OPINION OF OTHERS, right?” Venter’s response—“What a sad and pathetic man”—foreshadows the hypocrisy that Simone Weil, in her diary-like Gravity and Grace, discloses when describing our tendency to overly criticize friends and strangers for faults that we privately recognize in our own behavior and actions.
Whether or not we are all DEPENDENT ON THE OPINION OF OTHERS (in fact or on flesh), we all depend on our knowledge of how to function—how to perform—from the movies, and music, and television programs, and of course, the books, we consume daily.
Example 1: “I think I feared that we would be tarred and feathered and sent out of town, ‘tarred and feathered’ being a phrase I had heard in movies I watched with my grandmother.”
Example 2: “I fell in love with Ms. Scarra as soon as I walked into class on the first day, and I was determined to lose my virginity to her, a goal I probably chose because I had seen the scenario in a few of the nudie movies I had only recently discovered on late-night cable.”
Example 3: “Thoughts of my grandmother and even of the machine fell away, and my head danced with the idea that I had found a slice of the secret and therefore authentic Bohemian New York I had been dreaming of gaining admittance to since the first time I’d listened to Rent on CD.”
Example 4: “I straightened my shoulders, since I had read somewhere that you should keep your shoulders straight in a confrontation.”
Example 5: “I thought that his accent enhanced that song’s most sinister qualities, and then I chided myself for being influenced by bad Hollywood movies with vaguely European villains.”
Gerrard plays up our co-dependence as simultaneous producers and consumers of culture to form a parallel with the question the epiphany machine poses each time it inscribes text on flesh: are our lives dictated by fate or free will, God or the cogwheels of our own machinations? If our lives are literally before us—on an epiphany tattoo or in the data we keep accumulating—how can we learn to be conscientious eyewitnesses instead of passive spectators? And, amid the crush of surveillance and celebrity worship, how can we learn to think by and for ourselves? The epiphany machine might resemble an antique sewing apparatus, but Gerrard’s novel is most certainly a mirror. Fittingly, its major characters are all producers of some type—playwright, actor, author—and one of the most intimate, vulnerable moments occurs in Venter’s own admission of the sacrifice required when transposing real life into a representation: “Writing makes you a bad person.… It stops you from actually being in the world.”
As I organize these notes, I break the cookie bestowed at the bottom of the bag I’ve just had delivered. The love of your life is right in front of your eyes. Of course, my laptop is humming in front of me, the pulse of a single line to indicate a word inserted, the pause before what comes next. I don’t need the epiphany machine to know I write myself into everything.
1. I stood and shoved up my sleeve for him to see. “Happy now? Because, uncharacteristically, I don’t give a shit.”
2. My first instinct, of course, was to ask for a gauze pad. But then I realized that if I asked for a gauze pad, I would be showing Adam that I was worried what … people think about me. “I’ll take the Saran Wrap,” I said.