With echoes of 9/11, the protagonist of Jim Knipfel’s novel flees the ubiquitous surveillance of a not-so-futuristic government.
Despite its demolition of pop-culture groupthink, Jim Knipfel’s Unplugging Philco fluctuates between satirical insights and longwinded detours.
Wally Philco is a second-rate Homer Simpson, a near-future everyman schlep, struggling to find his place in the world—or escape from it. He risks his life with a decision to ‘unplug’ from the government’s far-ranging surveillance system and gets recruited by an underground group that dwells in abandoned sections of the New York City subway system.
The novel’s opening sections are an intriguing shadow-puppet dance of narrative tension, but eventually Knipfel’s story shifts toward vague melodrama; the story picks up, revived by more interesting tidbits, then flat-lines again. Philco’s internal dread is duly belabored—but is there some deeper purpose to a three-page description of his office supplies, following a three-page anxiety attack over why he buys the same mediocre coffee? Is this a groggy homage to Office Space? Following a minute account of a subway wait and train ride, the story’s blips and bleeps and surveillance monitors start to feel more like bells and whistles. Allegedly noir, the narrative clanks wry understatement against neurotic hyperbole, making for a rather sluggish journey. The reader waits for a wink from the author, some between-the-lines justification, but it never comes.
At its best, Unplugging Philco unveils hip observations about totalitarian control of the population by hi-tech consumer tracking. In Philco’s world, there is no separation of market and state; the media are embedded in a government that manipulates technology and terrorism, a plausibly frightening scenario dealt with in the novel’s most engaging sections. A 1984-inspired monitoring system is upgraded here to something like Dystopia 2.0: imagine modern dictators buying out Google and Amazon, replace Big Brother with a shopping cart icon, then proceed to check out.
It’s “a plan straight out of Machiavelli, Hitler, and The Outer Limits. Which doesn’t mean it’s a bad plan, mind you.” Government control is leveraged by fear and paranoia after that ol’ bait-and-switch: a terrorist attack, the footage playing on a 24/7 loop—accompanied, of course, by TV commercials—to remind pedestrians of the imminent danger. Consumerism and commie-scare tactics merge when doctored footage is produced with CGI effects to show additional attacks, the media’s marketing, production, and design departments working in sync. Citizens are harassed by smiley-faced robots about their semantic choices: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. See also: Kafka-esque bureaucracy, Catch-22.
One of the ruthless masterminds in Unplugging Philco wanted to be a lawyer, “but he wasn’t the best student, so he ended up suing his way through grade school. Sued the teachers, sued the schools. Sued the school board, even, demanding that he be allowed to move on. Then he sued his way through high school and college, then law school. Sued every one of his professors first year… Harvard opted to settle out of court and just gave him a damn degree. But after that he went straight into intelligence work.” It’s the kind of in-joke that’s clever and provocative for a sentence or two, but eventually grows tedious. It’s culture criticism with a sledgehammer, and Knipfel’s irony cuts both ways. After all, the novel’s first chapter can be found at Amazon.com, a site that utilizes more than a few of the profiling factors (your personal cache of ‘recently viewed items,’ recommendations, account details) that, in Wally’s world, have mutated to total surveillance and dictatorship. What all this technology still can’t determine is if readers would rather sate their post-9/11 palettes with a double-screening of Idiocracy and Zeitgeist the Movie.