Tell the Machine Goodnight Hardcover – 18 Jun 2018
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The protagonist, Pearl, makes her living as an “Apricity” technician, swiping people’s DNA, inserting it in the machine and reading the resulting recipe for happiness. Her wealthy ex-husband uses it for performance art, and their anorexic son refuses it, on the grounds that he is perfectly content to be unhappy, but uses it to help a friend in trouble. Other, secondary characters play a part in Apricity’s attributes, which raises intriguing questions as the narrative unfolds.
It’s hard to pigeonhole this book into a genre, but speculative fiction covers the heart of it, and it quietly, and with a sense of disquiet, tells a tale through interlinked and overlapping stories, or chapters. Williams is a scintillating wordsmith; she creates lucid images and also entices us with her word etymology:
“The word for ‘spell,’ as in casting a spell, comes from the same root as the word for ‘narration.’ This is evidence that ancient people believed language to be a sort of magic, the simple act of naming something akin to creating it, controlling it.”
These little brilliant gems are peppered through the narrative, as well as passages that genuinely made my skin tingle. It was worth the read just for the succulent language.
If you are looking for a book that hurtles inexorably toward a conclusion, to unify all the various threads into closure this is not that book. Ambiguity jettisons completion. I do take minor issue, though, that the end has more features in common with the ending of a chapter rather than a book. Then I read that the author is turning this into a series, which may explain a sort of lackadaisical finish, like a disappearance, as if the characters just walked off stage precipitously.
Could the author have been deliberating the series while simultaneously writing the novel? I look forward to viewing the televised version, which may give more decisive action to the characters. However, I feel a certain artifice at work here—i.e. that possibly the outcome had less to do with ambiguity as an intentional novelistic device and more to do with jettisoning it to a different medium—television.
Tell the Machine Goodnight is about Pearl and the people who are part of her life: her son, Rhett, who suffers from anorexia and stubbornly embraces his melancholy; her boss, Carter, who manipulates the Apricity into delivering advice to attain power; and Calla Pax, a young celebrity who commissions Pearl to deliver daily Apricity readings. There’s also Pearl’s ex-husband and his new wife, who hide mysterious secrets from each other.
The bizarre and fascinating vignettes from each of these characters’ lives make up the narrative of this novel about people trying and failing to find happiness and contentment amid the disconnectedness of modern life.
I was thoroughly engaged in each mini storyline, even the ones that felt more disparate and self-contained. This was close to being a 5-star book for me and likely would’ve been if there had been the tiniest bit more closure and cohesiveness in the end.
The title of the novel sounds forceful, but the theme is pretty nuanced. I was particularly struck in the acknowledgments when Williams calls everyone on her list "happiness machines." Technology is not demonized, but the real life force in the book is the care and insight of other human beings.