Back in the ’90s, the New York Press printed prickly columnists who wrote about things that bugged them, like noisy neighbors and liberals, writers who quickly became tiresome. At first, Jim Knipfel, whose “Slackjaw” Press column was about how practically everything bugged him, seemed like one of those. But, over time, his writing got simpler and steadier and gathered force. Eventually, he could hold you just by patiently describing his difficulties in getting through the day, or even down the street, with his failing eyesight, crippling poverty, and extreme (but well-observed) paranoia.
He got out books: memoirs, as well as a few novels—The Buzzing and Noogie’s Time to Shine—featuring heroes who were as hapless and challenged as Knipfel portrayed himself, but were given more dramatic, externalized predicaments.
Knipfel’s new novel, Unplugging Philco, goes a similar way. Hapless, challenged office drone Wally Philco lives in Brooklyn some years after “The Horribleness”—a catastrophe in Tupelo, Mississippi, with blatant similarities to 9/11 that’s led to a suffocating government clampdown: implants that pipe messages into the brain, scanners that track every move, and inescapable PR campaigns that badger citizens till they’re eager not only to comply with the absurd demands of the new order, but also to rat out their treasonously “unmutual” neighbors in return for a commemorative T-shirt.
In other words, it’s an exaggerated version of the way Knipfel saw the world in “Slackjaw”—at best, a constant nuisance; at worst, a constant threat. Philco isn’t Knipfel, though; for one thing, he lacks his self-awareness, which may be necessary for the fiction but is still felt as a loss.
Joyless, friendless, and somehow unable even after years in this panopticon to adjust to it, Philco is finally driven to “unplug,” improvising desperately to extract himself from the grid (even, in one graphic scene, digging his implants out of his flesh). He gains confidence and hope of escape, then draws the notice of Faro Jack, a cowboy-talking Luddite who wants Philco to join his literally underground group and help him make a revolution. Philco, protective of such freedom as he thinks he’s gained, is reluctant to join anything, but there’s this attractive female rebel. . . .
In many ways, Unplugging Philco is pure anti-establishment cheese—a Robert Ludlum novel for people who are more frightened of meter maids than of foreign agents. This isn’t such a bad thing. The conversations and characters are no more inventive than Ludlum’s, but the story has drive. It has the advantage in humor, of a comic-book dystopian kind that will be familiar to fans of Vonnegut (whose Player Piano is overtly referenced), Brazil, and the Dead Kennedys: There’s an anti-porn squad called SMEG/MA, an obnoxious snoop named Whittaker Chambers, a government plot inspired by an Outer Limits episode, aggressive robots with smiley faces, etc.
But you don’t really read Knipfel for laughs. You read him for the spell under which his prose can place you. At this, he has only gotten better with time. His meticulous renderings of maddening office chat, unhappy home life, quietly dangerous streets, and churning insecurities demand attention and, eventually, uneasy empathy. If there’s a paranoid bone in your body, Knipfel will tickle it, and you may find yourself wondering if your MetroCard and cell phone—and even the way you react to people on the street—aren’t evidence of a Horribleness that has actually happened to you.