Wednesday, March 1, 2000

Time for Robo, by Peter Plagens

A Review of Peter Plagens Time for Robo

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Spring 2000

Time for Robo
By Peter Plagens
Black Heron Press ($24.95)

Since in addition to being a fiction writer Peter Plagens is also a painter and an art critic, it’s tempting to judge his debut novel, Time for Robo, by its cover. Featuring just the title printed in simple block letters, the book’s surface doesn’t go very far to recommend the dense swirl of storytelling that lies just a few millimeters beneath. Which is strange for an writer so obsessed with surfaces. But as Plagens illustrates, an image, like a human life, is malleable and fleeting, and it’s the dimensions that lie beyond the surface that give it its true character.

That’s not to say that Time for Robo comes alive as soon as you open its cover. There are some interesting epigraphs at the beginning (one by the Bee Gees) and a quite amusing Contents page, which features section and chapter titles such as “Alas, Through the Looking Glass,” “Every Picture Stores a Telly,” and “Time the End of Till.” But with the opening chapter, things look as flat as the cover suggests.

Narrated by God, who’s somehow also a computer, the chapter functions both as a kind of Semiotics for Dummies and as an apology for (and defense of) the novel’s weaknesses. In order for us readers to understand him, sez God, He has to narrow Himself down; He has to be imperfect—like a statue chipped from a formless but all-encompassing piece of marble. I don’t know if Plagens thinks people will actually fall for these kinds of tactics—if we’re supposed to think that Time for Robo is as imperfect as, say, the Statue of David—but maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s not just trying to put one over on us non-art-critic types.

And then, somehow, things get interesting. First there’s a writer named Billy Lockjaw, who’s working on a novel (not quite the one we’re reading); and then there’s his novel (his second novel, whose chapters are printed as if they’re the chapters of Time for Robo); and then there are interjections from God, who reminds us intermittently (and only somewhat annoyingly) that what we’re reading is Billy’s work (and presumably not Plagens’). Who writes the chapters about Billy is anybody’s guess, I guess, but soon it doesn’t really matter, because with each new chapter, the layers of storytelling pile upon themselves until they form a fairly intricate Möbius strip of narrative.

Part of the pleasure is that Plagens’ themes—time, art, religion, the nature of reality, oral sex—build and revolve around each other as intricately as the narratives do, and that with so much to work with, the possible variations seem almost infinite, despite the computer’s caveat. But then once the stories get moving, Plagens loses momentum again as, instead of coming up with original variations, he begins to round up all the usual suspects: There’s a Flemish painter whose painting alters itself while he sleeps and then makes its way across several continents and centuries (see Gaddis and Borges); a shadowy, unnamed agency that has its fingers in all kinds of creepy technologies (see Pynchon); a cabal of Jesus freaks who become coke-dealing computer programmers (see Pynchon again); and a man who’s nicknamed Robo and whose father more or less lets the aforementioned agency experiment on him (see Pynchon yet again) and who somehow has (or had) the power to punch holes in time and disappear for split-seconds while he plays basketball (see Vonnegut and—gasp—Tom Robbins?). Surrounding all this is the narrative tension between Billy and God, which for all its cleverness is just a pale version of the struggle in William Vollmann’s You Bright and Risen Angels between the Author (a computer programmer) and Big George (an ostensibly omniscient electrical force).

In the end, Time for Robo is a brilliant and extremely provocative failure. The diverging ends, which spin from such auspicious possibilities, are way too loose to be reconciled; the Pynchonisms are way too transparent (and incomplete) to be credible; and the out-and-out hands-in-the-air, shoulder-shrugging I-give-up ending is hardly enough reward for finishing the thing. But there are other rewards, and not just a few of them, embedded in this mess of a novel. Most important is the simple fact that Plagens is such a compelling storyteller that, despite everything, it’s hard to stop reading. Even as he charts well-explored territory, he somehow comes up with fresh ways of seeing—and telling—his stories. Which may not be enough reason to pick this book up and make your way into its uninviting outer layers—but once you have, you’ll find yourself constantly compelled to keep reading. Which I guess may be recommendation enough.

—David Wiley