Out in the middle of the hot, unforgiving desert, Ephedra Amigo Consolidated (EAC) has built the Technological Research City, an empty city constructed in the desert for the purpose of experimentation and study. In a nearby office, EAC employees work on scientific projects like electric air, a device that conducts electricity wirelessly. One of these employees, Orson Moody, was born without a tongue and communicates through hastily-scribbled notes, and battles an addiction to the voice of Denise del Sol, a former employee and the love of Orson’s life who recorded the messages in the local visitor center.
Orson and his co-worker, Lang ‛Speakeasy’ Truro find that the empty city is being invaded by apparently homeless people. The homeless—soon dubbed the “irritation” by their superiors—shuffle near-mindlessly and seem to appear out of nowhere. A new employee, John Johnson, begins improving things in the office in the city by supplanting just about everything—flowers, birds, the dirt itself—with artificial replacements. Muzak, which has some kind of mind control effect on the employees, is piped into the workspace. Johnson decides to solve the homeless problem, but soon the driverless cars that restlessly roam the city start killing the poor souls, apparently due to a subtle tweak of their programming. And Orson and Lang’s boss, L. Boone Daring, has a daughter who becomes obsessed with finding the spirit of an Indian warrior who haunts the empty city because it was built on an ancient burial ground. Slowly, all these stories converge as the truth behind the homeless is discovered and a resistance to a nefarious plan is organized.
SOL is part Vonnegut (the phrase ‛and so it goes’ even pops up more than once) and Pynchon, with its mysterious phrases and opaque conspiracy. Livingston mines some great black comedy as just about everyone’s mental state devolves and the bland corporate machinations are slowly revealed. While the idea that corporate America is a generic hell of banal evil isn’t new, the concept of an entire city built solely to test products—and worse—is a fine one, and the mystery of the dead-eyed, shuffling men and women crowding into the city is intriguing. Livingston also has some fun with the tourism aspect, as families keep getting lured to an empty city by constant radio advertisements—and yet they all seem to enjoy themselves immensely. The story, though, is weighed down by overwriting. Lengthy sections repeat ideas for emphasis far too much, and the labyrinthine prose at those points loses the thread and becomes writing just to put words on the page; overall the novel feels like it could have used one last brutal edit to cut some of this material, which would have sharpened the final effect. This isn’t a book for everyone, but readers who enjoy an absurdist mystery in the Pynchon vein will find much to like here.
SOL is an absurdist story about the insidious nature of corporate blandness in the spirit of Vonnegut and Pynchon with some interesting ideas and effective moments. But it’s undermined by its sprawling length, which often results in a lot of words where a few would have done just fine.
~Jeff Somers for IndieReader