Robot stories: Cool-hand Berger’s brisk election-year satire


The start of Thomas Berger’s vive la différence election-year satire Adventures of the Artificial Woman suggests Philip K. Dick’s We Can Build You put through the social X-ray of Pride and Prejudice. Dissatisfied with the fairer sex, animatronics wiz Ellery Pierce pours a lifetime of specifications into his dream spouse Phyllis. Lacking emotion but not ambition, she surmounts steep learning curves without a sweat (or snack or snooze), and in short order sets out to make her name in show business. She dabbles in hooking and makes a study of various pornographies, her robot logic quickly rejecting these routes. Then Phyllis’s scandalous stage turn as a clothing-averse Lady Macbeth starts her on a drive up the cultural totem pole.

Misogynist? Feminist? Berger keeps a cool hand on a keyboard’s worth of hot buttons. Phyllis’s very construction mirrors the current vogue in makeover-based reality TV; her path from prostitute to screen icon to talk-show host and politician (do androids dream of election returns?) is a playful savaging of American desire on every scale. If the Pygmalion conceit seems to give the man the upper hand, the codependent duo’s very names invert the traditional gender roles—the feminized “Ellery,” the cyborg commonly addressed as “Phyl” (and once, “phallus”).

Against expectations, Phyllis—who conjures everyone from empire-building Martha to Angelina in tomb-raiding mode—becomes genuinely endearing. Studying a Currier & Ives calendar, she registers “persons of a bygone age about to enter a vehicle to which a team of four-footed, long-legged animals was hitched. No doubt there was an explanation for this picture.” And the author’s hallmark attention to language is subtly scrupulous. When Ellery complains of “stress,” unwaterproofed Phyllis suggests a Riviera getaway; Berger subtly crafts a line thick with anapests, and not free of a certain sadness: “I could sit on a chair and read while you swim.”