Adam Wilson’s Sensation Machines (2020) is smart and disturbing, subversive and entertaining. It’s set in an eerily could-be-now New York City:

“Headlines warned of rising sea levels and methane emissions. Chronicled the continuing barrage of Weinstein-esque behavior in politics and entertainment. Addressed the uptick in anti-immigration violence in the wake of mass layoffs at fast food chains in Texas and Arizona, the right-wing backlash against the soda ban in public schools. It all just kept coming.”

But Wilson secures his narrative with two characters, whose perspectives alternate for much of the novel. Rooting the story in characterization issues an invitation to readers who do not gravitate towards dystopian fiction.

“I was still in mourning. I think that Michael saw, in Nina’s death, the loss of a future, whereas I felt the loss of a person I’d known. For nine months she’d been my roommate, a tiny human sharing my body’s resources. Michael only knew her as a nebulous mass. A mass that occasionally kicked.”

It’s actually not now, but it’s not far off either. (Details like the publication of Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick’s co-authored self-help book, Bueller, anyone? Sex After Sixty, offer some clarity—Parker is now 55 years old and Broderick 58.)

The overt political commentary is relevant, however:

“People don’t read articles anymore, but if they’re exposed to enough headlines and pull quotes, they develop a false sense of being comprehensively informed. This is terrifying for all variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the researched and considered narrative is drowned out by the mob with the most stick-to-itive chant, but it’s great for someone like Wendy who controls the volume knob.”

The fact that both Wendy and Michael (Mixner, not Darling) are inhabiting a bizarre form of Never Never Land is interesting, but their ongoing security depends on a certain amount of amoral and immoral behaviour, which tips their story towards fascinating. They are not always likeable, but they are consistently curious, which opens lines of questioning for readers too.

“The store’s human employee came pushing a mop bucket to meet it. She typed a code into a wall panel that turned the siren off. I didn’t understand why the bots couldn’t clean bathrooms while the humans served guests. I’d been told they didn’t have the dexterity.”

Readers who are keen to insert themselves, there, in the process, will find this a tremendously satisfying story. Readers who recognize the gap between “I don’t understand” and “I’ve been told”. Readers who insert another “I don’t understand” after that sequence plays out, and allow their thoughts to spiral outwards, trying to broach another kind of understanding (something like truth) that fits with the telling.

Adam Wilson seems to be preoccupied by what doesn’t make sense. By the absurdities that erupt in the face of rationalizations made by the privileged. By the fact that many people who are capable to asking questions opt for apathy instead. By greed and the overwhelming desire for power which makes for a gripping story but a devastating reality.

“The American Dream—that beautiful stage set that looked so real on opening night—is now, with its props sealed in boxes and its actors gone home, revealed as a depthless façade.”