Summer in the City. The Nation is at war. Carnage is broadcast everywhere, igniting a galaxy of screens 24/7. For the Adman, a former copywriter for The Ad Agency, there’s no way out but in. He becomes an indoor landscaper or “horticultural technician,” for Topiary Techniques, Inc. He tends the potted flora of The City’s Corporations in order to “get back to the land.” He keeps the green growing in potted oases strewn about offices, cubicles, lobbies, and executive suites.
The former Adman becomes “Plantman” and in the spirit of Don Quixote begins a dizzying journey into the dystopia of The City’s false history and executive statutes enacted to control the epidemic of Viral Deviants (VDs) and the Missing Young, who flow into The City from June till the first scholarly summons of September. The time-span of the book is Summer in The City.
Such is the “story” of Topiary, a collection of prose pieces, satires, parables, and Swiftian cultural vignettes recounting the adventures of Plantman as he tends potted plants in corporate-and government-offices throughout the City.
Topiary has been called “experimental” and compared to the “dystopian” novels of Huxley, Pynchon etc., but it’s more like 1984, a reflection on dystopian reality in the present rather than being a futuristic “vision.” Most of the book is written in “conventional prose,” though the author does make use of up-seepings, like drinks of spring-water, in the styles of Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, John Ashbery and, when all else failed, Emily Dickenson in order to express, in sentences, the reality of our common present-day nightmare reality. While Gertrude Stein tried to capture the “eternal present” via repetition, cyclical sentences, and a verb-oriented “grammar” attempting the elimination of nouns, Engel, in various sections of Topiary, does the opposite-attempts to express the culture’s stasis, clutter, and emptiness via a preponderance of nouns or “things” at the expense, often, of verbs, prepositions and the immediacy of life as Stein tried to capture it.
A clear narrative informs the book as it follows Plantman’s “travels,” much as Voltaire followed the travels of Candide, another rising hero in spite of himself. But Topiary also is powerfully-and poetically-concerned with looking at and exposing the insanity of the “techneurotic” civilization Plantman lives in, where Life has been replaced by bland, meaningless activity in an artificial construct of “Time,” and where the real has been repudiated in favor of the symbolic-of-real. Ours is a world of “Talk-talk; talkety-talk; the pursuit of pure talk,” as one character puts it. Or as another, Root, the anarchist/luddite publisher of an anti-technology journal called “Crackbyte,” says, “The Network contains all the information known to Man, but very little wisdom.”
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