If one word could characterize Duke University professor Ariel Dorfman's new novel, it would have to be "divine." The book is a sort of divine comedy, with epigraphs from Dante's Inferno, but with a twist: The quotations are from Cantos in their ascending order, rather than descending--our hero is moving up, instead of down; the protagonist, Graham Blake, CEO of a corporation called Clean Earth, is so obsessed with being good that he ends up playing God; and finally, Dorfman is concerned with ontological questions, with divination. At the beginning of the book, Blake is not certain who he is, and soon enough has cause to doubt that anything is real. (The specter of a Bruce Springsteen song is raised toward the end--it was Springsteen who sang, "God have mercy on the man/Who doubts what he's sure of.")
Blake is guided on his journey not by Virgil, but by a therapist, Dr. Tolgate, who has developed a radical new technique for curing the various malaise of high-powered corporate executives. As his name suggests, a price will be paid for Dr. Tolgate's deftness with crossing boundaries, which is the stuff not only of traditional therapies, but of the particular treatment required by the wealthy and powerful (those suffering from Tolgate's Syndrome, or what Tolgate himself calls "quasi-terminal anguish"). As an underworld guide, the mythological figure of Hermes escorts the human psyche over the threshold of life and death, and through the hypnagogic state between wakefulness and dreaming. Dorfman suggests at the beginning that our protagonist needs to "wake up," but when he enters Dr. Tolgate's care, Graham Blake is unable to sleep. We are to assume that Blake has been sleepwalking, or living in a kind of dream-state, and that the wakefulness demanded of him is of a new variety: the wakefulness of the individual conscience in relation with other individuals, rather than as a corporate officer making corporate decisions.
The products and services provided by Clean Earth (Magical Foods, Enchanted Nutrients, Oils for the Soul, Youth Pills) and its slogan, "We Change Mother Earth Without Hurting Her," are vague enough to serve as a backdrop for Blake's drama, and allegorical enough to demand greater attention. What does it mean for Blake to have a global consciousness, but also have two children who are never once in his company; or that Blake sincerely advocates "compassion and competitiveness"? (Blake is not running for President, in case you're wondering.)
One of the hallmarks of the early Christian movement was the idea of a personal God, which led to the concept of a personal hell. Yahweh was interested in a people; the message of Jesus, at least as it was translated by Paul, was that God has his eye on each of us individually. Graham Blake--whose desire for goodness, for being thought good, is so powerful as to be messianic--finds a way to exert a God's eye over the people around him. The camera, the microphone and the two-way mirror have become the classic props in the post-World War II literature of paranoia. Any astute reader knows by now that when a camera is introduced into a plot, the subtext is: Who is watching whom? Dr. Tolgate expresses it this way: "That is, after all, what matters in life, it all comes down to this choice: Are we to be the eye that watches the microbe or are we fated to become the microbe that is watched by some superior eye?"
Indeed, this question hovers over the entire novel. Blake's therapy, such as it is, is to have complete control over another human family, to make or break each individual member with a Godlike ability to alter fate (the only thing required to alter fate, as anyone living in the 21st century knows, is money), and he is able to watch the results of his puppeteering through an elaborate system of television monitors. In this way he will know precisely what kind of man he is. Tolgate has found a way to eliminate existential doubt. No room, no action, no intimacy is safe from Blake's eye. But isn't Blake himself being watched by someone else? Dr. Tolgate is, of course, monitoring Blake's project, but who owns Dr. Tolgate? And who owns the man who owns the man who owns Dr. Tolgate? Photographs, videos, bugging devices: Their reproductions form an infinite regression away from meaning, like a hall of mirrors in which the man, the actual human being, gets smaller and smaller.
It's in his relationships with women, unfortunately, that we know the most about Blake--his ex-wife (and still business partner) Jessica Owen, and his lover, Natasha, and Roxanna, seen only through closed-circuit television: None are any more real than another. They have no physicality, no real definition. Dorfman takes this idea one step further, as he did in Konfidenz, and makes the object of Blake's affection, Roxanna, something of a dream woman, such that no matter how vivid she is, we are unable to believe in her. And it is here, finally, that we share Blake's ontological crisis. What or who is Blake to trust, watching the unsuspecting world through a lens and potentially being watched in turn? What does it mean to gain heaven and lose your soul?
This book could just as easily have been called Blake's Choice, because in the end it is all the same. What we find in hell, as on earth, are the resonating vectors of our decisions, which we are eventually called to witness, as if on a television screen, as if someone larger than ourselves had been recording us all along.