"Reading As a Machine and Parts" copyright 2012 Kristin Fouquet
Reminiscent of Metamorphosis and Flowers for Algernon, Caleb J. Ross takes us inside the mind of a man who is transforming. This man, Mitchell, experiences a slide from human to machine. This transformation coincides with the deterioration of his relationship with a much older lover, Marsha.
While becoming a machine would be an existential nightmare for most, Mitchell almost doesn’t seem to mind. Eric, Marsha’s son, asks “How did this happen to you?” “That’s not the point.” (p. 35) Several pages before, Eric rips away Mitchell’s nose, a globe valve, foreshadowing his future. Eric’s best friend, a man named Ferret, enjoys repurposing dead animals, some deliberate road kill. Although these characters are resentful and curious about his changing condition, they don’t seem alarmed by it, much like Mitchell, leading the reader to accept it as well. Mitchell becomes delighted with each new “beautiful hinge.” A hierarchy seems to form from Ferret and his animals to humans to machines.
Ross has constructed this novella as one might build a machine. Without giving too much of the fun away, he uses devices which engage the reader. One example is an omniscient voice which appears occasionally in fogged gray words outside of the main text. What I consider the second part, “Globe Valve,” is a short story by Ross I read years ago in MiCrow- proving to be another cog in his machine. Another part, “Malignant Bolt” is a clever exercise in metafiction. At only 4.5 pages, it contains 180 footnotes. As writers, we must always wonder what is derivative and how many words we can truly call our own.
In the end, this book had me questioning the essence of humanity. I thought of times when we may be more stoic or going through the motions in mechanized routine. I also remembered times of grief and extreme heartache when one feels emotionally paralyzed because of intense pain. In my early twenties, I suffered a bout of severe depression. It occurred about a year after my father died. It could have been delayed grieving, but I felt I had mourned him. Having been prescribed an antidepressant, I hopefully tried it. I became completely complacent. There was no sadness, yet no joy. I decided numbness was not existence and threw the pills away in the trash. Feeling pain and occasional happiness was better than feeling nothing. With supercomputers capable of highly complex problem solving, perhaps our emotions demarcate the separation of human and machine.
Although I place As a Machine and Parts on the shelf alongside Charactered Pieces and Stranger Will, I will continue thinking about this book for some time.
2012 Kristin Fouquet