by Ben Tanzer
Switchgrass Books; 164 p.
In the past few years, Ben Tanzer has established himself as an adept chronicler of a particular type of middle-class male anxiety. Fathers figure prominently into his work, as do cities — most especially, Tanzer’s home of Chicago. Orphans, his latest novel, shares many characteristics with Tanzer’s body of work, but ventures into the realm of science fiction. Orphans zeroes in on the fears and frustrations of its protagonist: his new job, which threatens to disrupt his time with his family; memories of his younger days, and the compromises he’s made since then; and the question of how replaceable he is at work and home. That last bit isn’t meant symbolically; set in a corporatist near future, Orphans involves android duplicates that fill in for certain people while they travel for work — and may do a better job of living out their lives.
Orphans‘ narrator, after a spell of unemployment, is hired for a physically and mentally exhausting position selling real estate on Mars. The ways that this causes his life to unravel make up the bulk of the novel; gradually, his already-anxious connection to his wife and child becomes more strained. The fact that he has incurred a sizeable debt to a sinister corporate operator doesn’t help matters. The future Chicago of this novel has been overtaken by corporations; drones prevent protests, as well as most public human interaction; tent cities and flash mobs abound, but have little effect. A nebulous extremist organization periodically strikes within the city, though Tanzer focuses less on their goals and more on the state of terror that they inspire.
Many of the characters’ names here are nods to other works: a pair of salesman encountered by the novel’s protagonist share names with two of the characters in Glengarry Glen Ross. The protagonist himself is named Norrin Radd, and the android doubles that populate the city are dubbed Terraxes — both references to heralds of the world-destroying Galactus in numerous Marvel Comics. It’s a nice touch that casts a hit of cosmic doom over the whole proceedings, lending an urgency to the Martian-real-estate venture for which Norrin finds himself working. Not all of the nods to other works are as effective: in particular, there’s an homage to Bartleby the Scrivener that feels a little too on-the-nose.
Tanzer ably chronicles a man in over his head within a larger society that’s also over its head. Reading Orphans, I felt the same gnawing dread I’ve felt when a job begins to spiral out of control; that Tanzer can tap into that same anxiety and work it into a work that’s this compelling suggests that he’s struck a very appropriate chord.