Adam Wilson's latest novel Sensation Machines, released in paperback this month by Soho Press, depicts an economic collapse that seems not so much plausible as inevitable. We follow the unravelling through the perspectives, and the relationship of, Michael and Wendy. Their contrasting temperaments offer a parallax view of society. What struck me most, however, was how Wilson approaches our fractured and crumbling world with an anthropologist's eye—an eye focused on our strange, mostly arbitrary, economy of desires and what motivates our everyday insanity.
I followed my therapist into his office, plopped myself onto one of his Eames chairs, unloosed a cough drop, lay my legs on the ottoman, and closed my eyes.
I’d been to this office once a week for some twenty-odd years. When I first started seeing Dr. Becker, I was a depressed college student, though I’d have been hesitant to use that term. All I knew was that I stayed in bed for days at a time, sleeping through weekends, and sometimes into the week, missing classes; that rising to face the morning felt like a monumental task. I wasn’t planning to kill myself, but I thought about suicide a lot, imagining, in methodical detail, the way I’d do it: buying a stepladder from the hardware store on 109th and Broadway, hanging the rope from an exposed pipe in my dorm’s laundry room. I knew these feelings weren’t normal, and I’d met this girl—this woman—Wendy, and I wanted to be normal.
From the get-go, Dr. Becker had pushed medication. I was resistant at first, fearful in the trite, familiar ways: that I would become a different person, unfeeling, delibidinized, dimmed into hippie placidity. My doctor did his best to quell these fears. I remember, once, he told me I was giving the drug “too much credit,” that, as a person who’d experimented with everything from ketamine to cortisone anti-itch supplements, and who’d spent my senior year of high school in a marijuana haze, I was—in so many words—acting like a little bitch. But it was my experience with stonerism that made me suspicious. I’d lived under the delusion that smoking marijuana at hourly intervals had no effect on things like my short-term memory, levels of motivation, or enjoyment of certain Southern rap groups. It was only after suffering from mono that summer, that I realized how powerfully I’d been under the spell of such a supposedly harmless narcotic. Thinking clearly for the first time in a while, I realized just how unclearly I’d been thinking.
The same held true for Prozac, which I did end up taking, and was still taking in daily, sixty-milligram doses when I arrived that afternoon at Dr. Becker’s office. As I’d feared, it was hard to say how Prozac had affected my personality. I was a different person than when I’d started on the drug—higher functioning, certainly—but it was unclear how much these improvements had to do with the meds, and how much they had to do with the slow but consistent crawl of maturation. Besides, where had it gotten me? A stable mood hadn’t stopped my life from falling apart.
“We’ll just be a moment, Michael, no need to get comfortable.” The ottoman slipped from under my feet and I almost fell. “Why are they called ottomans, anyway?” I said. “It must have something to do with the Ottoman Empire. Which makes me think of Empire Chinese. You know that place? On Broadway?”
“This is not a session, Michael.”
Becker checked his watch.
“Who was that guy in the waiting room?”
“You know I can’t discuss another patient. What I want to talk about is why you’re here. You can’t just show up at my office. I know you know that, because you’ve never done it before. Is this an emergency?”
“I’m having a weird day.”
It seemed as good an explanation as any. I’d woken in the library, shivering cold, with that catnap feeling of time stretched and jellied. I opened another document, but couldn’t find my mojo. Ricky’s sure thing investment rattled in my brain. I pictured the movers packing up our apartment, Wendy’s face red with rage. I found myself walking to Becker’s, not really thinking, just moving my feet, mumbling: Before coming to prominence in the field of hip-hop, Marshall Mathers worked as a pizza chef at the Little Caesars Family Fun Center in the Detroit suburb of Warren, Michigan.
“I’ve been withholding,” I explained. We’d spent the last many sessions treading in irrelevance, rehashing childhood hang-ups. This was my doing. Becker had asked about Wendy and work and I’d deflected.
“For example: I lost all my money.”
“I bet on America.”
“I see,” said Dr. Becker, though the calm way he said it, free of worry that I might now require some kind of subsidy in order to continue attending these sessions, made it clear that he did not.
“Did I tell you I got bedbugs?”
This got his attention. Becker surveyed the way I was positioned on his Eames chair, assessing the possibility of something crawling from my pocket and burying itself in the leather.
“Okay,” said Dr. Becker, who now walked toward the door.
“Wendy’s going to leave me,” I added, though it wasn’t something I’d allowed until that moment. But it seemed suddenly obvious. I’d woken that morning with a plan to mend my marriage—or, at least, with a plan to make a plan—but as I sat in the now-infested Eames chair and watched the sky darken through the window, I realized that I’d failed.
“I see,” said Dr. Becker again.
There was something infuriating in the calm way he said it while pulling open his office door to expedite my exit. He took a step into the hallway. I’d been coming here eight years. All he could say was I see.
I returned to an empty apartment. I felt very itchy. I ran a steaming bath. We lived in a large refurbished loft on the top floor of an old canning factory. Shortly after moving in, I replaced the apartment’s original bathtub with an oversized claw-foot I found online.
When Michael first saw the tub, he said something that upset me. The deliverymen had just left after finishing the installation. I’d cleared the packaging and trash. I’d tested the faucets by running hot water over my fingers. I was taking in the tub for the first time.
The tub was beautiful: white with the mildest varnish finish, giving it the shine of a freshly dish-washed dinner plate. The claws were hand-molded by a sculptor in Dutchess County. They were lion’s claws with long toes arched to show off individual tendons. The tub was held on tiptoes, supported by the lion’s toenails, which started thick at their crescents, then thinned to slim points like sharpened pencils. I had decorated the bathroom in Matisse prints, an array of pastels. The windows were open and a breeze blew in. The sunset shone through the window.
I was pregnant then, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that, in that tub in that room at that moment, I saw the future flash before me. I imagined the drum of my belly covered in bubbles. I saw myself washing my daughter, running shampoo across her tiny skull.
Michael said that it, the tub, would be a good setting for wrist-slitting or death by overdose. He was standing in the doorway when he said it.
I said, “Go on.”
Michael entered the bathroom. He tried to touch my waist but I pulled away. He climbed into the empty tub and lay down, fully clothed. He closed his eyes.
Michael went on to describe our bathroom by candlelight on a cold winter night. He watches snow fall outside the window while the water runs at full heat, pinkening his skin. I am out of town for work and he has the loft to himself. Pain has overtaken him. Not sadness, he said. Not loneliness. But real pain, the kind he experienced before being medicated. The kind that only death’s stillness might relieve.
Michael said he would put on the kind of maudlin music that plays in movies when characters kill themselves: a softly finger-picked arpeggio, a woman’s breathy voice, the buzz of a simple bass line.
He smiled. He thought this was funny. Or maybe he smiled because he’d meant it to be funny but had begun to scare himself, and was trying to salvage the situation by highlighting its comic familiarity. These were clichés after all. Michael said he would surround the tub with candles. Wax would drip into the water. He would reach from tub to medicine cabinet and gather a collection of plastic pillboxes. He would down a deathly combination of pills with a bottle of Pinot Noir. A bitter wine, he said, no citric aftertaste to his short life. He would say salut and blow a kiss out the window. The kiss would drift on the wind and reach me where I was. Michael would await eternity.
I said I found this upsetting.
Michael said he was only joking. He tried to take my arm and pull me with him into the empty tub. I exited. We did not speak of it for some time.
Over the following months, while Michael bathed, I would watch the clock. Often, I became impatient. I would enter the bathroom and check on him under the guise of keeping him company. I would sit on the toilet seat and watch Michael bathe.
We would talk. I was pregnant. These were pleasant times. We discussed baby names—Michael liked Emma, I preferred Eva—and imagined our lives as parents. Michael would work less, coming home early to cook elaborate meals. We’d walk Nina (my mother’s name, which we’d eventually agreed on) to school, wave goodbye from the doorway. We’d buy appallingly hip children’s clothing. We’d place her on the bed between us and sandwich her with warmth. In a few years, Michael would coach her basketball team. He’d teach her to make omelets, to ride a bike.
We discussed our fears as well. Mine was that motherhood wouldn’t change me as much as I hoped it would. That instead of turning me blissed-out and easy, my new role would make me more tightly wound. I worried that I’d be too stiff to form a comforting cradle. I worried that my performance of motherhood would be unnatural, that my love would not be correctly expressed.
Michael was reassuring. He told me I was being ridiculous. He told me he couldn’t think of another person more suited to motherhood. He said that I had a big heart, that my heart was so big that it didn’t fit on my sleeve like his did, and so I had to hide and protect it deep inside of myself. But he knew it was there, and that when Nina was born all that stockpiled love would come gushing out. I told him it was the cheesiest, stupidest, and kindest thing anyone had ever said. I rubbed soap on his shoulders and shampooed his hair.