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Emblazoned with the arresting image of a TV floating down the bayou, David Gilbert’s Remote Feed appears as a stark protest of the video wasteland we currently inhabit. As surely as the stories in this debut collection rage against the new technological order, though, they lampoon the notion of the noble savage. Gilbert’s characters veer recklessly between the poles of engineered existence and natural law, dissatisfied with each. Like any serious writer, Gilbert is concerned with the discrepancies between appearance and reality, between the party line and the truth. Neither is particularly appealing, by the writer’s lights, and the world his characters inhabit is far from picturesque. Gilbert refuses to let pictures speak louder than words, to dumbly “tweak the focus knob and play with the vertical hold and work on the tint.” He dares us to stay mute, even as he offers us no suitable response.
Gilbert’s outrageous title story satirizes a CNN news crew in professional exile; following the death of their reporter in Bosnia, they cover events that demand no narrator, no on-air personality to shape events or declare human stakes. The real tragedy lies not in the reporter’s untimely end, but rather in his unphotogenic death by aneurysm, an invisible explosion in the brain rendered meaningless on tape. Lewis, the producer, laments the loss of better snuff footage, which he considers the apex of television news. “No parachute journalismjump in, tape the segment, and take the next flight homebut a literal deadline, a perfect mix of subjective and objective news, a reporter as victim, as casualty, as sacrifice to the event itself.” These men have made personal sacrifices for their work, but not the sort to elicit admiration.
Their latest assignment is a naked instance of soulless spectacle: the arrival of the first lady for a safari-styled photo op in the Galápagos Islands. Lewis rationalizes it as “a working vacation. A deserved break. Just soft news wrapped up in a twenty-second kicker at the end of a newscast.” Still, it embarrasses him and his veteran colleagues. After the war, a staged deplaning seems no small affront to their dignity, which becomes more difficult to maintain as “the taped music begins to play, something by Sousa, and the little flagsplastic Stars and Stripes stapled to dowelsare lifted and flapped, each one designed to sustain maximum enthusiasm at cheapest cost.” In a fleeting moment of self-awareness, Lewis’ cameraman questions his work. “If in some backward countries a photograph steals your soul, what the hell would this do?” If he cannot be a hero, he can at least be a villain of his own imaging: “Videoman.” A new breed entirely, and one Gilbert excels at chronicling.
Gilbert glibly intersperses epigraphs from Charles Darwin throughout “Remote Feed,” contrasting the naturalist’s impressions of the indigenous wildlife with his observations on the viewing public. (Is there any other kind?) The first lady’s visit is devoid of Darwinist connotations; she is meant to nuzzle wildlife and tug at homo sapiens’ heartstrings. Lewis remembers that the one horror in Bosnia that the crew did not dare to televise was the butchering of the zoo, captive zebras and seals killed for meat by starving locals. “No one wants to see it. Too much grit for back home,” Lewis thinks. “Plus the fearful lack of civility, the giant leap of regression, all that crap is a bummer to a humanist nation.” The ironies here are far from subtle, but Gilbert intends to underscore just how blatant our hypocrisies have become.
The author’s faith in humanist endeavors is severely circumscribed; he has no illusions about the limitless potential of people espoused by late-night infomercials. The opening story, “Cool Moss,” mocks a motivational speaker who catalogs the depths to which he’s sunk as though they were professional credentials. The featured guest in the latest in a series of suburban theme parties, this one dry, he recruits only one other guest to walk over hot coals with him. This particular guest, Malachi Scott, has had the good sense to get soused ahead of time. Like many of Gilbert’s characters, Malachi is concerned about his viability in a Hobbesian world, whether he would survive as one of the fittest. Despite our technological advances, Gilbert suggests, we are unable to reroute our hard-wired anxieties. Even his domestic dramas, the luminous “CPR” and sweet “Girl With Large Foot Jumping Rope,” are preoccupied with the fragility of human life. The author’s sexual determinism is most evident (and disturbing) in “Don’t Go in the Basement!” where passion becomes indistinguishable from menace.
But Gilbert falters when he conflates fatalism with manliness. A creepy machismo drives several of his male characters to make foolish, often cruel choices. The primary difficulty with these characters is not their shortcoming, but Gilbert’s odd choice of first-person narration. The authorial distance that crowns the title story gets sacrificed for a gratuitous immediacy. Gilbert is obviously a verbal adept, but his talents are wasted on characters who seem to lack basic facilities for self-knowledge. The narrator of “At the Déjà Vu,” for instance, leave his depressive wife for a turkey shoot in the deep South. (Now and again, he mock-hunts fowl in controlled environments, where the kills are guaranteed.) In a drunken stupor, he remembers his first sighting of her: “Think of Chartres with breasts…” Honestly, who would want to? Similarly, the down-and-out narrator of “Opening Day” devises twee titles for nearly every incident and phenomenon in his life: “My Old Self,” “The Year My License Was Suspended,” “Go and Tuck the Boy In.” Such metacharacters are unrecognizable outside of books, movies, and television shows with more puerile bents.
The biggest offender is the narrator of “Graffiti,” who emerges as a composite, a Denis Johnson-Raymond Carver-Robert Stone tough guy acting on random and perverse impulses that he can articulate beautifully but never explain, let alone justify. He takes advantage of the bitter blind woman for whom he has volunteered to serve as a reader, lying about his current employment and his criminal record. “Books and TV, I thought, that’s what prison is, with incredible flashes of violence thrown in between.” Presumably, his fairly brief stint in prison has twisted him for life, so that all his best intentions are sure to be eclipsed by something darker. Gilbert is too smart to offer such pat predictors, and readers should be too smart to accept them. If the rationale isn’t counterintuitive, what’s the point in repeating it?
Given his native acuity, Gilbert has a clear mandate to outwit his creations. The title and final stories, both set in the Galápagos, provide the writer with necessary range. With the cool sensibility of a social scientist, Gilbert is able to trace complex connections and conflicts between a curious assortment of characters. In “Still in Motion,” he brings a disenchanted wife and hopeful husband aboard a tourist troller circling newly domesticated wildlife. Chester hopes that they will conceive on this vacation, but Debbie, the recent victim of a mugging, surreptitiously uses birth control. She embraces misanthropy with the zeal of a convert, disgusted by the animal aspects of her species. As she handles their video camera, she pictures herself as “the robotic Debbie that would allow the real Debbie to remain unchanged. And maybe this robotic Debbie could be the happy wife, the happy mother with the babies, cyborg babies, their eyes Sharp, their
ears Panasonic, their brains Microsoft.”
Readers susceptible to technophobic suggestion will embrace Gilbert’s work, as will those who reject progressive sloganeering in any form. What rescues the bulk of Remote Feed from the status of crank doomsaying is its painstaking verisimilitude and dark humor. Gilbert seems to find his characters vaguely amusing; he considers their failings on a global scale. The antihero of “Anaconda Wrap” showcases Gilbert’s comic genius nicely. A failing studio executive, Saul Messer faces an existential crisis with characteristic self-indulgence. His latest film has been mercilessly panned, even by critics that Saul believed were held in his pocket. “This isn’t lead in the pipes,” he whines. “A movie. It’s just a movie. Entertainment. Not worthy of this Woodward-and-Bernstein approach.” In his own mind, though, big-budget disasters rank with crimes against humanity. “Check out the news, the same stuff is happening over and over again (Waterworld…Rwanda),” Saul tells himself, “and while you know enough not to believe in progress, you still want to believe in growth, in maturity…” Gilbert warns against such naiveté. However toxic our world, we seem quick to adaptand more importantly, slow to complain.CP