Everyone else knows the truth about you. Now you can know it, too. That's the slogan. The product: a junky contraption that tattoos personalized revelations on its users' forearms. It's an old con, playing on the fear that we are obvious to everybody except ourselves. This particular one's been circulating New York since the 1960s. The ad works. And, oddly enough, so might the device.... A small stream of city dwellers buy into this cult of the epiphany machine, including Venter Lowood's parents. This stigma follows them when they move upstate, where Venter can't avoid the whispers of teachers and neighbors any more than he can ignore the machine's accurate predictions: his mother's abandonment and his father's disinterest. So when Venter's grandmother finally asks him to confront the epiphany machine and inoculate himself against his family's mistakes, he's only too happy to oblige. Like his parents before him, Venter is quick to fall under the spell of the device's sweat-stained, profane, and surprisingly charming operator, Adam Lyons. But unlike them, Venter gets close enough to Adam to learn a dark secret. There's an undeniable pattern between specific epiphanies and violent crimes. And Adam won't jeopardize the privacy of his customers by alerting the police. It may be a hoax, but that doesn't mean what Adam is selling isn't also spot-on. And in this sprawling, snarling tragicomedy about accountability in contemporary America, the greater danger is that Adam Lyons' apparatus may just be right about us all.
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In a book where I hate the main character so much, probably because he is as almost exactly like me, I love the book. Hope nobody reads any of these reviews before reading it. I am glad I just bought it and listened on just the strength of the sample. Since I share the same major flaw as the main character I am sure it would have been spoiled by other people's opinions.
Enlightenment comes to the most dull-witted. Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony
Words are like weapons: they wound sometimes. Diane Warren, If I Could Turn Back Time
From epigraphs to The Epiphany Machine.
My first thought is actually a question considering that this novel is great and somewhat similar to, and likely even better than, 2016's The Nix. Mr. Gerrard, who teaches creative writing in NYC at the 92nd Street Y, The New School, and the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop, hits our contemporary culture right between the eyes, as did Nathan Hill in The Nix. So, my question: is Random House--whose imprint published The Nix--that much better at pushing their books than Penguin's imprint for The Epiphany Machine? Where is the Love? I should probably say here that no one pitched this novel to me, or gave me a free copy of it; I bought it after reading a few rave reviews.
Perhaps the initial hesitation of reviewers and readers alike to pick up this literary gem comes from the sci-fi element in it. The plot surrounds a contraption discovered by its owner in the 1960s that will tattoo your epiphany on your inner forearm, a sort of modern-day oracle in a way, whose customer list has included John Lennon and a number of other luminaries. Set in NYC, mainly from the late 1990s to the present, the sales pitch for the machine in its early years was *Everyone else knows the truth about you, now you can know it, too.* The idea, in theory, is that *once you know your biggest secret, you can accept it* and consider it as a revelation of self to help you go through life, or something like that.
For example, the epiphany of the protagonist Venter Lowood, both of whose parents were among the earliest recipients of epiphany tattoos, is *dependent on the opinion of others.* Epiphanies can be much more vague though, such as that on Venter's best friend, *Likes to blow things up,* who, as a budding playwright, the friend took to mean blowing up his mother's expectations of him becoming a physician and of him marrying a girl of his own faith.
Mr. Gerrard makes this centerpiece work as a believable machine that people want to use and creates a credible growing importance of the machine in contemporary culture, much as he makes the characters seem real and true.
In any case, the sci-fi element should be a reason for even more chatter rather than a cause for pause. Consider that quality sci-fi/lit genre-benders come along only every so often and the good ones have actually rocked the world: See, e.g., Brave New World, 1984, Frankenstein, The Handmaid's Tale, the works of Franz Kafka, Slaughterhouse-Five, Fahrenheit 451 and The Road, and resulted in literary acclaim and/or moderate commercial successes of late such as Life After Life, The Plot Against America, Cloud Atlas, Never Let Me Go, Murakami's novels and The Time Traveler's Wife.
This fascinating and brilliantly inventive bildungsroman moves quickly and keeps up the interest with well-developed characters and strong, morally intricate storylines. The novel touches upon issues of accountability, truth, destiny, privacy, responsibility, our inability to see what is obvious to everyone but ourselves, and our susceptibility to our ancient enemy in our self-rationalization of morally wrong actions. It is full of allusions and similarities in tone to Joyce, Kafka and Wm. Burroughs, as well as smart nods to literature and writing.
My one complaint--that the transition into the post-9/11 abuses didn't seem to quite fit--is far outweighed by the book's poignancy, its intriguing characters, its crystalline critiques of contemporary American culture, and the fun of reading it.
I highly recommend this one, which some are saying may end up a Cult Classic.