“Damn, the human mind doesn’t really work the way humans like to think. It’s much more crazed and folded. Backward, switchbacking, switchbladed. Freaked. You humans can’t handle your own heads…” (316).
Tricia Sullivan’s new novel Double Vision (only available in the UK) is her first book since Maul. Like Maul, Double Vision has a double plot, with one strand set in a science-fiction future world, and the other set in (near-)present New Jersey. Karen ‘Cookie” Orbach is an overweight, socially dysfunctional, generally passive young black woman, living in New Jersey in 1984, who hallucinates when she watches TV: instead of seeing the shows everyone else sees, she has visions. Specifically, she becomes a silent eyewitness to a war on another planet. All-woman squadrons of (apparently American) soldiers are attacking, not exactly an enemy army, nor even another species, but a sort of sentient landscape/dreamscape called The Grid, which seems to cover most of the planet. Back in New Jersey, Cookie works for the Dataplex Corporation, which pays her well to report to them what she sees in the war.
The New Jersey narrative is more or less about Cookie learning to affirm herself and take control of her life. The Grid narrative is about… well, it isn’t easy to say. The grid is a hallucinatory, ever-changing labyrinth of pulsing light, and pollen and pheromones, and tree-like branches, all emanating from a thick, viscous, organic liquid called the Well. The Grid is a kind of simulacral mirror: it mimics any organic object or artifact that comes into contact with it, returning it back to you in multiple copies, in a form that is sometimes sinister, and other times just seems like a cruel parody, or a cheap-horror-movie version of the original. The Grid does not recognize the distinctions of cause and effect, subject and object; “it operates according to an acausal connecting principle” (287). The Grid “refus[es] to be nailed down in object form”; it marks a border “between the possible and the actual” (183). The Grid seems to be made of information, yet it is also highly emotional, and somehow “feminine… like anything subject to change, like any body that yields and sacrifices its nature and transforms itself” (99).
The Grid is ontological, in short. It seems to be the matrix of all potentialities and all appearances. It’s dangerous because it messes with your mind, altering you even as it allows itself to be altered by you. But still, it’s unclear why (aside from the usual stupidity of our imperium) American or Earth forces are attacking it, trying to control it or exterminate it, rather than seeking a less violent (more collaborative or dialogic) approach.
But there’s one other thing about the Grid, and it provides the link between the SF story of which Cookie is the observer, and the humdrum reality of her everyday life. The reason that the Dataplex Corporation wants Cookie’s reports from the Grid is that these reports contain, unbeknownst to her, references to advertisements and product placements in the TV shows that Cookie cannot see. Every visual detail, every plot twist, in the war stories that Cookie experiences has its analogue in a very different sort of war: the war of advertising strategies. Analyzing Cookie’s reports, Dataplex is able to inform its corporate clients as to which advertising campaigns will succeed and which will fail. Information about how to penetrate and destroy the Grid is transformed into information about which approaches will penetrate TV viewers’ psychological defenses and influence their purchasing behavior.
Sullivan leaves the relation between these two dimensions of the Grid enigmatic. We live in a world where everything is penetrated by — or better, imbricated with — the flows of capital. Yet of course there is something parasitic about capital. It can’t really create, without hitching a ride, as it were, on forces (nature, bodies, emotions, human labor and pain and passion) that it is unable to originate by and for itself. The Grid is not the power of capital — which is perhaps why the military has been enlisted to destroy it — but it is something that this power cannot do without — which is why the military campaign seems endless, and even why it is in process of being deserted (towards the end of the novel, all the human forces are evacuated from the planet, leaving behind machines to continue the work of destruction… but also leaving behind the disturbingly quasi-human remnants of the Grid’s own mimicries).
For that matter, it’s not entirely clear, either, how the lessons of the Grid help Cookie to pull things more together in her everyday life, to come to terms with being an outsider, a freak, a possible schizophrenic, to overcome her pathological passivity, to deal with the everyday actuality of sexism and boredom and lack of opportunity. But these very uncertainties are what make the novel so compelling. And by the end of the novel, Cookie is able to turn the tables, and — perhaps — channel the powers of the Grid for the here and now of New Jersey, rather than just travel to the Grid as an escape from New Jersey. And that might just mean turning the tables on the culture of advertising and commodities, as well.