Plastic: A Novel
- By Scott Guild
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Tara Campbell
- February 12, 2024
This experimental work walks a tightrope between comedy and commentary.
It’s hard to summarize Scott Guild’s Plastic without giving away a main plot development, but suffice it to say, this world is not what it seems. Described as “[b]oth a dystopian comedy and a serious dissection of our own pre-apocalypse,” the novel teeters on a tightrope between comedy and incisive commentary. The narrative runs on multiple layers, toggling between a sitcom and a world populated by plastic figurines, with only brief flashes of a poignant flesh-and-blood reality beneath it all.
The main reality here is a future United States in which people are literally made of plastic. They interact largely through apps and virtual reality, eating nothing but boiled chicken to prop up an economy dependent on burned poultry bones for fuel. While the government ignores the effects of climate change, domestic eco-terrorists commit mass shootings and bombings in protest.
Our main character, Erin, is all alone. In the years since her sister disappeared under mysterious circumstances, both her single father and her boyfriend have died. She copes with her losses through CODA (a religion blending faith and technology) and an old TV sitcom called “Nuclear Family,” starring plastic figurines like herself, as well as sentient waffles, robots, and floating fuzzy cubes. As we come to realize, the program isn’t a random show but a means through which she processes aspects of her life.
When eco-terrorists attack Erin’s workplace, she winds up helping a young blind man named Jacob. As they become closer, Erin grapples with secrets from her past, and the circumstances surrounding her sister’s disappearance begin to loom large over Erin and Jacob’s blossoming romance. The novel isn’t just a near-future love story, however. Scenes begin as descriptions of TV shows, indicating that we’re about to embark on a journey that doesn’t follow the usual narrative rules:
The episode opens on a plastic woman driving home from work. The camera follows her from outside the car, filming her through the window, showing her hard, glossy face inside the dim sedan.
The world is filtered through the lens of media, placing us at a remove. Another element of defamiliarization? Technology seems to have affected speech patterns in this future. Dialogue is rendered in a verbal-text pidgin, creating discussions like this:
And you? he asks her. You go CODA three year?
Erin reaches for the wine bottle, pours herself another glass. Go same reason you. Big big death. My dad.
They monster. They enjoy kill, I think. They enjoy.
Oh, it no terror group. He just get bad sick.
BPD, Erin says.
The young man hesitates. Brad Pitt Disease?
(Some context: Brad Pitt Disease is a fatal wasting illness that eats away the plastic of a figurine, leaving behind grey ash.)
Fortunately, Guild doesn’t present the whole novel in such speech. Erin describes how her obsession with old sitcoms led to her adopting the “old fashioned dialogue” of the last generation, which explains why her inner thoughts and in-scene narration (yes, the fourth wall is broken) are in standard English. Still, the caveman-ish diction of the new language, combined with the lack of quotation marks and gags like BPD, create an uneven reading experience. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be feeling empathy for the characters or keeping them at a satirical arm’s length.
I assume this sense of disconnection was intentional because 1) one of Erin’s coping strategies is dissociative, and 2) it demonstrates how technology, which is supposed to connect us, is actually quite effective at separating us. Yet I found myself wondering if the distancing was too effective. I’m glad I kept reading, but someone looking for a less bumpy experience might not.
The sitcom interludes are, by design, lowball and corny, punctuated by ever-present laugh tracks. Given the author’s musical background, it’s not surprising that the characters often break out in song and dance, like this number by a sentient, wisecracking crucifix named Morris:
The boy gets his pair of pliers, then prises the nails from Morris’ palms and feet. The little Savior leaps down to the bureau, where he suddenly stands in a beam of spotlight, dressed in a seersucker suit. He reaches out a pierced hand: a glittery dance cane whizzes into his clasp. Strolling the bureau like a vaudeville stage, he sings to a maudlin piano:
It’s awful sad
When Mom and Dad
Are headed for divorce.
They used to kiss
But their next tryst
Will be in family court…
I think the crude humor and laugh track are designed to trigger eyerolls, an indictment of the mindless programming that is the water in which most of us grow up swimming. But if these elements were instead meant as straight-up comic relief, à la the broad, almost slapstick humor of “Scrubs,” then there’s probably a better audience for this book than me. Reading it, I was reminded of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and, oddly, “ALF” (due to smart-alecky Morris). Unfortunately, there’s a limit to how much of that kind of humor I can take.
Still, threaded through this Technicolor weirdness is a compelling narrative about a young woman dealing with trauma whose chances of happiness are challenged by family secrets and external events. As we find out, the whole novel revolves around a trauma response. Yet when a scene stops in its tracks for Erin to burst into song, the tonal shift is jarring. Perhaps the jolt is meant to underscore how the perversely destructive reward structure of capitalism — propped up and amplified by our intellectually impoverished media — renders all of us ultimately ridiculous. Or maybe it’s meant to appeal in the way the “Subspace Rhapsody” episode of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” appealed to Trekkies like me.
And therein lies the core of my ambivalence. I appreciated that the author was taking narrative risks but didn’t always know what to make of them. I found myself wanting to discuss the book with someone else to see what I might be missing. Of course, maybe I wasn’t supposed to be taking it all so seriously, and this was simply a mismatch of senses of humor. Either way, Plastic is a book that will stay on my mind.
Tara Campbell is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, and fiction editor at Barrelhouse. She received her MFA from American University in 2019. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Masters Review, Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, Booth, CRAFT Literary, and elsewhere. She's the author of a novel, TreeVolution, and three collections, Circe’s Bicycle, Midnight at the Organporium, and Political AF: A Rage Collection.