ADVENTURES OF THE ARTIFICIAL WOMAN
By Thomas Berger
Simon & Schuster. 198 pp. $22
Thomas Berger, as everyone knows, is the author of Little Big Man, one of the classic American tall tales. Before that book came the Reinhart series of comic novels, and after his Cinderella moment Berger returned to crafting a large number of highly individual but less widely read (or "midlist") novels, including such oddities as a revisionist and "ribald" retelling of the King Arthur legends (Arthur Rex); a noir private-eye novel in which everyone speaks with an unlikely Henry James precision (Who Is Teddy Villanova?); and Regiment of Women, a wonderfully extravagant philosophical romance in which men and women have changed roles in a future America, with the men made to be secretaries and housewives and to wear dresses and elaborate underwear and makeup, and the women are the bosses in suits and pasted-on moustaches.
For any proper assessment, such a long career has to be viewed as a whole, and every writer knows his latest (or last) novel may not be his best. Ah, well -- there's no putting it off any longer with these prefatory observations -- Adventures of the Artificial Woman is a remarkably poor book. As the perfunctory title announces, it's about an artificial woman -- a robot, made by hand and in secret by Ellery Pierce, a "technician" working for a firm that makes animatronic creatures for theme parks -- and her comic-satiric adventures among the flesh-and-blood. Phyllis, as her creator dubs her, is perfect in every way, exquisitely beautiful, indistinguishable from a human person, able to hold long conversations with her maker and, in the end, capable of such autonomous actions as forging a career as a movie star and eventually being elected president. (Yes, it's the kind of book where an artificial human does things more efficiently than the emotional, foolish and needy real ones.)
It's apparent from the beginning that this isn't science fiction -- Richard Powers's Galatea 2.2 is the book to read for an interaction between a computerized female and the human world that's equal to the paradoxes and problems involved. Berger has other fish to fry. Phyllis gets away from Ellery and goes off on her own. She quickly discovers how to make a living in the sex trade -- stripping, lap-dancing and phone sex -- with the comedy arising from her perfection as a sex object and her misunderstandings of male sexual needs and wants. From there she progresses to starring in a rather unlikely semi-pro production of "Macbeth," which she turns into a big hit by introducing sex scenes. Her theater career leads to the movies, in which she stars as a super-heroine in a tight costume, doing her own stunts.
All of this behavior, or the possibility of developing it, is posited as arising from a "compact computer" inside Phyllis, but her adventures are really the immemorial ones of an outsider or fool in human society, who succeeds precisely because she doesn't understand what's up and proffers ambiguous messages for others to decode by wishful thinking. (Jerzy Kosinski's Chance, in Being There, is another example.) Much supposed humor derives from the way Phyllis responds literally to metaphors and figures of speech, and brightly answers rhetorical questions -- what might be called the "Amelia Bedelia" effect, but which is also an ancient wheeze. Even this slight connection to the original premise is largely abandoned, however, as Phyllis moves from fading movie star to political candidate (succeeding, of course, because she takes no position on anything) and begins to talk like a modern Machiavelli whose only connection to robotics is her lack of sympathy with human feelings.
In its political burlesque, the book truly hits bottom. The loutish, priapic, hillbillyish (but secretly cunning and devious) president whom Phyllis defeats is left over from a previous age of satire. The idea that any presidential campaign will turn on empty showmanship and inconsequential promises might have been funny a very long time ago. The idea that the vice president is a total nobody plucked from obscurity (here, a pharmacist met casually on the campaign trail) goes back to Kaufman and Ryskind's "Of Thee I Sing" (1931) and before. Nothing that anyone, including the robots, does or says is within the realm of even farcical possibility. Throughout there is Berger's patented oddity -- that everybody speaks in the most artificial and preciously exact way. I laughed just once in the course of reading this book, when Ellery Pierce, now President Phyllis's adviser or stooge, cautions against her plan to install a Mafia capo as head of the FBI (because who would know crime and criminals better?). "Surely," Ellery responds, "you aren't referring to the infamous Mafioso, head of the Spadini crime family? I assume you mean a respectable man of the same name. But is it advisable to encourage such a confusion?"
Well, maybe I was tired. Adventures of the Artificial Woman is not only about an animatronic robot, it reads rather as though it were written by one. It can't really harm Thomas Berger's large achievement as a steadily practicing writer of handmade novels in an age that doesn't treat such beings very kindly, but it does not add a cubit to his stature either. *
John Crowley's latest book is "Novelties & Souvenirs," a collection of stories.