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Book Reviews: Two Masters Stumble   |    
Adventures of the Artificial Woman ? Melancholy Baby
Jeffrey L. Geller, M.D., M.P.H.
Psychiatric Services 2004; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.55.12.1446
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by Thomas Berger; New York, Simon and Schuster, 2004, 198 pages, $22 • by Robert B. Parker; Emeryville, California, Putnam Publishing Group, 2004, 296 pages, $24.95

Thomas Berger, well known for his satirical commentary on society in the Reinhart series and in other novels, such as Little Big Man, Regimen of Women, and Neighbors, is not up to form in his current outing. And Robert B. Parker, best known for his 31 Spenser novels, bumbles along in his fourth Sunny Randall novel.

Being a fan of Thomas Berger, I was looking forward to his 23rd novel, Adventures of the Artificial Woman, described on the book jacket as "another scathingly hilarious and sinister novel from Thomas Berger." Unfortunately, I was not entirely satisfied.

The novel's premise is enunciated in its opening sentence: "Never having found a real woman with whom he could sustain a more than temporary connection, Ellery Pierce, a technician at a firm that made animatronic creatures for movie studios and theme parks, decided to fabricate one from scratch." Pierce successfully makes an artificial woman; the novel traces the life course of Pierce and the "pseudo life" course of his creation, Phyllis. Pierce, unlucky in love—by age 33 he had lived with three women, having married two of them and unable to find the "right partner"—decides to make one. He succeeds beyond his or anyone else's wildest imagination, but somehow Phyllis manages to have a "mind of her own" and deserts Pierce. Her career path soars, his plummets. Eventually the pair are reunited; together they enter the world of politics, and Phyllis is elected president of the United States.

Berger raises a number of interesting questions, but rather than pursuing any of these, he seems to jump from one question to another. Pierce is in his mid-40s before he creates an artificial woman who he believes will pass, and Berger has the interesting opportunity to pursue considerably more fully than he does the American male's midlife course. He could pursue just how far a woman can go with good physical attributes alone and what price she pays to do so, but he fails to do that. Pierce hooks up with Janet, a woman who herself gave up a relationship with an animatronic creature, and Berger starts down the road of a middle-aged dyad who become "so comfortable with each other as no longer to be sexually intimate," but he abandons what this means to an American couple.

Pierce becomes homeless and suicidal, but this development is not pursued. Berger gives himself all sorts of opportunities to elaborate on a mechanical creature's observation of humans. He notes, "By now she [Phyllis] knew something about human responses, which, defying reason, were usually evoked rather by fancy than by fact, by what is preferred rather than what is." Berger passes on the chance to develop this as completely as would have been satisfying.

Finally, Berger has the opportunity to strut his skills in the world of politics. This opportunity, however, is reached late in the novel, and Berger's characters have about run out of time. There are cogent observations about politics, such as "Politics is showbiz and sometimes it's even more lucrative but usually less believable." Or Phyllis' comment, "I don't have to remind you that unless you reprogram me, I am obliged to tell the truth. But you and all the rest of our team can enjoy the normal human exercise of lying whenever it suits your purpose." And describing Phyllis' running against two men for president, Pierce observes, "Your greatest asset is you've actually done something in real life, unlike either of your opposite numbers, career politicians." Perhaps Berger fumbles with the political satire and irony because something so purposely paradoxical as politics is not easily parodied.

There is much in Adventures of the Artificial Woman that would interest anyone in the many fields that study human behavior. The problem is that there is just too much, and ultimately the satirization of human foibles undermines itself by degenerating into absurdity.

Robert B. Parker has set Melancholy Baby, as he usually does, in the Boston area. For reasons known only to Parker, he mixes real and fictitious geography—for example, the novel includes a Taft University in Walford.

In evaluating a mystery, it seems reasonable to apply two very basic criteria. First, after reading the book, does the reader feel that the plot holds together without holes wide enough to drive a truck through? And second, is the mystery solved by a sequence of reasoned steps such that the reader can follow logic to the resolution, rather than feel that someone charged in with the denouement from left field? Melancholy Baby fails on both counts.

Melancholy Baby is a quick, fun read, so if you want a couple of hours of diversion, I don't want to be the one to ruin the plot for you. But you must not be bothered by whether the entire sequence of events makes any sense. For example, would a woman who gives birth because she is against abortion have people murdered with total equanimity to hide her secret? Would a woman starting out in an industry who has no resources be able to pay off others to protect her early sexual history and her history of pregnancy?

Of particular interest to readers of this journal will be Parker's handling of a mixed group of individuals he uniformly refers to as "shrinks." Melancholy Baby includes two "shrinks" who are carryovers from other Parker novels. The first of these—Dr. Copeland—was a central character in another Sunny Randall novel, Shrink Rap, but is a very peripheral character in Melancholy Baby; the second is Susan Silverman, Spenser's main crush and a frequent character in the Spenser series. Copeland is a psychiatrist, Silverman a psychologist. To Parker they're all just "shrinks." In fact, Parker has Silverman herself referred to as a shrink: Randall says, "I'm sorry…. I mean, I know that it's about me, not about you. You're just so goddamned shrinky." Silverman replies, "I am, after all, a shrink."

Parker also has the unfortunate tendency to carry over his characters' glib banter—a trademark of his—throughout his portrayal of psychotherapy. It would be far better if Parker did not play psychotherapy as if it were an indulgent repertoire between two bright characters.

That Parker is contributing to the confusion between psychiatrists and psychologists is no better demonstrated than in a review of Melancholy Baby written for the Associated Press by Bruce DeSilva (1). DeSilva writes, "Meanwhile, Sunny has troubles of her own …. To understand herself better, she turns to psychiatrist Susan Silverman, the love interest in two dozen Spenser books."

Parker apparently has a particular interest these days in children finding their "real"—that is, biological—parents. If this theme is of interest to you, you'd be better off skipping Melancholy Baby and instead reading one of the Spenser mysteries, Back Story.

Dr. Geller is professor of psychiatry and director of public-sector psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

DeSilva B: Mr Parker Lays an Egg. Sunday Telegram, Aug 15, 2004, p C5
 
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References

DeSilva B: Mr Parker Lays an Egg. Sunday Telegram, Aug 15, 2004, p C5
 
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