Double Vision and Sound Mind by Tricia Sullivan
Reviewed by L. Timmel Duchamp
07 May 2007
The late Jean Baudrillard characterized the "perfect crime" as "that of an unconditional realization of the world by the actualization of all data, the transformation of all our acts and all events into pure information; in short, the final solution, the resolution of the world ahead of time by the cloning of reality and the extermination of the real by its double." (The Perfect Crime Verso, 1996, p. 25) In such a version of reality, only the sign-value of commodities (rather than their use- and exchange-value) would matter. Individuals would be focused exclusively on the consumption and display of commodities in order to establish identity, accrue prestige, and achieve superior standing. What is "real," in short, would be "murdered" by being turned into expressions of a single, homogeneous unit of measurement beyond which nothing else mattered. Baudrillard's primary target is digital technologies, which he apparently believed were turning everything human into digitized information. (As Steven Shaviro points out in "Returning to the Scene of the Perfect Crime, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Virtual," Baudrillard's panicked attack is based on his placing credence in the "most extreme hype of the most naïve, enthusiastic proponents of these technologies.")
The antagonist of Tricia Sullivan's duology Double Vision (2005) and Sound Mind (2007), who is not completely unmasked until well into the second novel, would like to pull off an ambitious scheme that bears more than a passing resemblance to Baudrillard's "perfect crime." Interestingly, the narrative of Double Vision opens on July 2, 1984, while its sequel, Sound Mind, takes place during Spring 1987—Winter 1988; and so Sullivan richly depicts the fabric of postmodernist life sans cell phones and widespread access to email and the Internet. Although few of the characters in either book own personal computers, those were the years in which PCs began flooding into middle-class homes in the United States—and also the peak years of cutting-edge, Neuromancer-inspired Cyberpunk. Although not unheard of, it's not typical of SF narratives to be set in the recent past. When they are, they tend to be alternate histories, secret histories, or a piece of back-story for a narrative set in the future. Is it a coincidence that Gibson's Neuromancer was published in July 1984? I suspect not. In any case, looking back over the last two decades, the mid-to-late 1980s strike me as a sort of turning point for US culture at large. The year 1984 also resonates with the book's semi-Orwellian theme, although Sullivan's narratives, even at their most paranoid, do not invoke the usual nightmare visions of totalitarianism we associate with Orwell. In this duology Sullivan is after a more insidious, more total form of control than that exercised by Big Brother. Think Rebecca Ore crossed with Philip K. Dick (with maybe a dash of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris in the first book and David Cronenberg's Videodrome in the second).
Karen Orbach, aka "Cookie," stars as the narrator and protagonist of the first novel and the hero of the second; she is a protagonist to love, flawed and brave and struggling hard to find the "genuine" stuff (not to mention do what's right)—and also black and overweight. Even better, she can't watch television because it makes her "sick," and she's always reading fantasy and science fiction novels. She may be confrontation-averse and inclined to passivity, but she has a temper that, given her karate lessons and large body mass, gets her into Really Big Trouble when she loses it.
At the outset of Double Vision, Cookie is pulling down a $40,000 a year salary (which in 1984 would have been a pretty good wage for an academic, and Cookie is a mere high-school graduate) working for Dataplex Corp. Her job is high stress, though what it is she actually does poses a mystery that nags and claws at the reader from the beginning. Cookie herself believes her job is to report as a "flier" from the front of a secret war being waged light years from Earth. "You are a set of eyes for Machine Front, no more, no less," her boss, Gunther, tells her. (p. 16) Cookie first questions the plausibility of the extraterrestrial war narrative on p.89, when she asks Gunther how the soldiers get to the front. He replies that a "gravity-torsion generator in New Hampshire" launches them. Cookie believes him, but his reply confirms the reader's suspicion that she is being duped and her special talent exploited.
Cookie's problem with television and her talent seem to be linked. She describes her first "haunting," which occurred as she was watching Star Trek (the original series):
It was the episode where Spock smells these red flowers on this planet and starts having emotions. He laughs, he cries, he starts to kiss a woman—
—and I see the assault. From below, like I'm an ant on the floor as opposed to a fly on the ceiling. It starts in a pool hall, four men on one... (Double Vision, p. 95)
Anxious to do something about her visions of violence, which she is sure are psychic and not psychotic in nature, she presented herself to the police as a psychic. She believes that she helped them to solve several cases, but they claim she's crazy. She is therefore grateful to Dataplex for allowing her to be an "agent of change," as she thinks of it. Her job involves sitting at a television screen for hours on end, isolated from her co-workers; she believes that as she sits before the screen at Dataplex she's "haunted" by the war and is thus psychically transported to the front, where she rides the construct called Gossamer and is virtually weightless. After every session, she reports to her boss for "debriefing." Flipping back and forth between worlds, she says to her computer-geek friend Miles, "I feel all distorted, dragged out of my own shape. I'm living in too many worlds at once. In my mind I look like a starfish. I'm being pulled into these different dimensions and pretty soon there will be nothing left in the middle" (p. 109). Miles responds: "I can just see the newspaper headline: Cookie Starfishes. A Fair Lawn, NJ woman has mysteriously disappeared, to be replaced by an abnormally large starfish in her bathtub. The starfish was discovered reading Ringworld Engineers and eating a Hershey bar" (p. 109).
Not long after this conversation with Miles, Cookie discovers Cookie Starfishes on a grocery shelf between Apple Jacks and Lucky Charms: they're little brown starfishes dotted with chocolate chips, based on a cartoon television show. And for several paragraphs, the first-person narrative shifts into second-person: "You keep finding yourself at a loss. You're trying to wrap your head around something and you don't what it is, and neither does anybody else." (p. 153) Several sentences later, Cookie says:
Have I been saying 'you'?
Well, there you go. See?
I don't even know which world I'm in anymore. (p. 154)
The portions of the narrative spent at the front, fighting the Grid, are written in second person; the rest of the narrative is in the first person. This moment of self-consciousness jarred me out of the narrative, since there had been no previous indication that Cookie was self-consciously writing the story for an audience, and this moment reinforced questions I'd already had about why the war narrative is written in the second person. Still, the narrative sucked me right back in, probably because Cookie's discovery of a cereal called "cookie starfishes" on the grocery shelf provided further evidence to use to choose between theories I'd been entertaining about Cookie's talent and the use to which Dataplex was putting it.
To keep from spoiling the story, I'll refrain from discussing two of my three competing theories. The third and most obvious explanation is that Cookie is delusional—but in a way that can be profitably exploited by her employer. After all, at the time Cookie first went to work for Dataplex, she was a "nervous wreck," worrying about maniacs she'd fingered getting paroled and coming after her,
and in danger of losing my job as a file clerk. Around that same time I developed my TV allergy. I thought it was just stress. Then I answered the ad for DEH and found out that what I thought was an illness was actually a talent. (p. 17)
The clues come fast and furious. We discover that Cookie works for the "Foreign Markets Research Division" of Dataplex. On her way out of the building, she passes a conference room in which a focus group is at work. One voice says "Lexus... out of that name I get luxury, sex, and nexus." (p. 19) After that, we can't ignore the fact that her account of the war is remarkably loaded with brand name products and that the soldiers fighting the war are warned repeatedly that they must at all costs keep brand name logos from reaching the Grid, for the Grid is said to "get ideas" from candy wrappers and Coke cans dropped into its "well" through "brand name contamination." Moreover, Machine Front's most powerful "Second Wave" weapon is the Max Factor, which resembles a giant mascara tube. Most striking of all, though, is the memo Cookie sees on Gunther's desk with a "list of test targets filtered from the most recent Karen Orbach transcript." (p. 16) The list includes Trailbreak Granola Bars, Max Factor Mascara, Radical Crunchies Snacks, Swatch, Dune: the movie, Charmin, Max Headroom, Pop Rocks, and The Gap.
Whether Cookie is delusional may or may not be related to the emotional breakdown she suffers (including an inability to eat), which is complicated by the sudden death of her mother. Though she ceases to know what is real or even what is possible, she remains in some sense profoundly grounded. For one thing, she's perfectly aware of feeling "distorted" "from living in too many worlds at once." For another, although she's never taken a philosophy course, one night when she's drunk she tells Miles that the world they live in is "an elaborate illusion and I think deep down everybody knows it. Look at all this concrete and asphalt." When Miles points out the necessity of photocopiers and take-out pizza and multiplex theaters, she says "Maybe we only need those things because we got rid of the stuff that was really important. Or hid it where it can't be perceived." (p. 107) This resonates later when one Machine Front soldier says to another, "Being poor's not so bad if you don't watch TV or go to the mall. Don't know what you're missing and it's OK." (p. 109)
One of the Grid's creations—and also one of Machine Front's major targets—are nine little girls who look identical and share a single consciousness. Cookie's conflicted feelings about these little girls distract her and make her ambivalent about her (apparent) duty to find the "logic bullets" that can defeat the Grid and kill all of the little girls (who are clever and resourceful and whom Machine Front are picking off one by one). The little girl(s) will remain a mystery for most of the duology, as the Grid will not. The most important thing about them, which we learn fairly early, is that they are constructs of the Grid's "well" and possess agency, creativity, and emotions. Cookie's second-person narrative notes that "the Grid is feminine ... like the sea, like anything subject to change, like any body that yields and sacrifices its nature and transforms itself." (p. 99) And yet the Grid is an "it"—as the little girl(s) is/are not. Perhaps the most significant action of both books occurs in the denouement of Double Vision, when Cookie brings the little girl, who has claimed the name "Cassidy" (after Butch Cassidy), into our world.
Sound Mind begins with first-person narrative; the narrative is not Cookie's, but that of a college student named Cassidy Walker. Cassidy has no memory of her life before the age of fourteen:
The funny thing is that I don't have specific memories organized into the story of myself. I'm not a story. I'm just a collection. And it strikes me that most of the stuff I know probably doesn't come from "experience." It comes from TV, or reading, or people telling it to me and me buying into it. (Sound Mind, 57)
Cassidy has an urge to collect sounds with which to make music and possesses a special sensitivity to the mysterious "IT" (as in "it," not "I.T."), which is capable of tearing the fabric of reality and thrusting Cassidy into adjacent time streams or reality "bubbles." When IT tears her world asunder and only she seems to have any idea of what might be going on (or memory of what the world had been like before IT had changed it), she undertakes to stop IT. A bit more than a third into the novel, the narrative—now in the third person—shifts to focus on Cookie. This is a leaner, tougher Cookie in better control of her talent and determined to take out the antagonist who's close to committing Baudrillard's "perfect crime." By the time she and Cassidy meet up, all hell has broken loose. And Cookie, no longer passive and confrontation-averse, is up to the challenge.
These books form an interesting pair. Although Double Vision leaves much for its sequel to explain, it achieves a sufficient sense of narrative closure to allow it to function as a stand-alone novel. I'm not sure, though, that Sound Mind would make a satisfactory read on its own. There are other differences between the two. While olfactory cues dominate Double Vision, aural cues fairly saturate Sound Mind. While the formal structure of Double Vision alternates between first- and second-person narrative, Sound Mind more conventionally sandwiches third-person narrative between two long blocks of first-person narrative—and yet because the latter novel involves frequent shifts in chronology and, toward the end, long lyrical and even philosophical riffs, it is in a sense more stylistically adventurous than the first novel and concludes with nine "codas" and an epilogue. I found the lyrical riffs, so appropriate to the subject matter, immensely pleasurable, and yet the book as a whole didn't satisfy me quite as much as Double Vision, likely because the first section felt too loose, too repetitious, too long. After the build-up of Double Vision, I had a good sense of what was coming and just wanted the book to get on with it, so that Cookie's appearance came as a relief. I also stumbled constantly over the typographical choice to represent "it" as "IT." Constantly that convention stopped me dead, prompting me to pronounce it mentally as EYE-TEE before moving on.
Still, how can I resist a text with lines like the following?
—"We're only animals. We're supposed to be living in huts on the savannah," Cookie said. "We're supposed to have babies and lose our teeth and die. But that's not what's happening. We made up this other weird shit. We live half in the spirit world. And it's coming here ... it's infiltrating us and we have no defenses. Most of us. Humans. Have no defense ..." (pp. 318-319)
—And fuck transcendence, by the way. (p. 334)
—You can be a verb; you can be walking, always. But then your existence can make no mark... Or you can be an object. A thing. Involve yourself in the context. Allow yourself to be fixed. And this, of course, means that most of you will be asleep. (p. 351)
Read these books: they're not only a science-fictional exploration of Baudrillard's fears, but fun and uplifting.