A WORK LIFE
AS YOUR IDEAL LIFE
What is my ideal gate? This question haunts me after finishing Vincent and Alice and Alice, the latest novel from Shane Jones. The deeply unsettling yet wildly comic story follows the titular Vincent coping with a recent divorce from his beloved wife Alice. Set mostly in 2017, the disorienting narrative explores what it means to be human in an increasingly fractured and fabricated world.
A former artist turned office drone, Vincent works for “the State” and lives in “A-ville.” He leads a tedious and mostly solitary existence. He spends the bulk of his time in “the Zone,” a stray cubicle isolated from the rest of his officemates. The occasional awkward moment of sexual tension with his co-worker Sarah (the only woman of color in the department) and random encounters with his homeless friend Elderly (who sleeps in a 1995 Pontiac Bonneville) are the only moments of excitement in an otherwise dull life.
All this changes when he meets the aptly named Dorian Blood, a slick-talking Reagan fetishist who enlists Vincent for the experimental Patrol for Everyday Repetition program (PER). Participants have their reality altered—they begin to see and experience their deepest desires, the “ideal gate.” As a PER guinea pig, Vincent’s heartbroken subconscious manifests a new version of Alice. She’s perfect except for one slight problem: she’s not real. Or is she? Jones’ sci-fi adjacent tale of modern-day angst is refreshingly unpretentious. Told in an understated and deadpan voice, Vincent’s journey is simultaneously mundane and surreal:
“A Best Buy supervisor is berating a worker about her shirt that she is frantically trying to tuck in. Down a grim hallway leading to the bathrooms someone is moaning. A baby is vomiting into her mother’s hands. How is everyone not screaming?”
Jones is a master of layering detail after vivid detail. Mix the precision of DeLillo with the weirdness of Lynch and you’re only halfway there. It’s almost frightening how perfectly Jones captures the excruciating boredom and often overlooked strangeness of office culture. Vincent’s vapid co-workers discuss Fridays, horses, chalupas. The corporate environment is a perversely compelling backdrop. At one point Vincent ruminates on Robert Propst, inventor of the cubicle. Coming to regret how his invention was misused, Propst remarked, “This is monolithic insanity,” a quip encapsulating the all too familiar world Vincent inhabits.
Perhaps most striking about Jones’ book is how profoundly American it feels. Front and center is the tension between what it means to live in a country that represents the ideal best and absolute worst of civilization. There is a palpable undercurrent of menace throughout the book, one of which many characters remain blissfully ignorant. These people are unconcerned by political greed and corruption, or the mounting protests in the streets. Racially motivated violence runs rampant through A-ville. Vincent’s officemates conclude the best solution would be shipping non-whites back to their home country (“…they hatch an idea that one commercial flight or even a very large boat could ‘fit them all.’”). In the era of flight bans and ICE concentration camps, Jones’ alternate universe seems frighteningly plausible.
Through Vincent’s observations, Jones astutely captures that unique brand of American apathy. Even Vincent is not immune to indifference. At first he is content living in a fantasy, going on day trips with the new Alice, making grilled cheese with the new Alice, doing the Leg Wobble Man routine with the new Alice. Of course, their artificial relationship inevitably proves unstable. The situation becomes particularly complicated when the real Alice reappears in Vincent’s life. What might happen if the two Alices meet?
Although the real Alice isn’t physically there for most of the book, she is arguably one of the scant few characters who display genuine compassion and empathy in a coldly indifferent world. Paradoxically, she is both absent and present. Most of what we come to understand about Alice is delivered secondhand via Vincent’s memories. The new Alice is a mercurial being. Sometimes her personality is indicative of a time when she and Vincent were still in love. On different occasions she embodies the dissatisfaction and hostility leading up to the divorce. Duality is a major motif in the novel, the contradictory nature of humanity a constant source of existential dread.
All this would be unbearably heavy if not for Jones’ straight-faced sense of humor. The book is crammed with grimly hilarious lines: “Sometimes other people are hell. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone to argue with.” The absurdity of the modern world is on full display. Lost souls wander through shopping malls, a deaf neighbor practices his singing, colleagues make racist jokes while munching Doritos. One cannot help but laugh at the madness of it all, or in Vincent’s case, ignore it.
His life is permeated with monotony and repetition. Several chapters echo the same line: “I settle into the Zone and work without a break or speaking a word.” Vincent calculates he will have to work another twenty years before receiving a generous pension. This logic begs the question, is it worth sacrificing half your life to enjoy a small window of freedom? To sell your soul for a decent retirement package? Depressingly, most of the citizens of A-ville seem to think so.
One of the most disheartening scenes shows Vincent attempting to lead a painting class for a group of Syrian refugees. He extols the virtue of art as his brush meets a canvas for the first time in ten years. Vincent believes he’s experienced a breakthrough. Disgusted, the men storm out of the classroom. When Vincent pleads he is only trying to help, the men curse at him. They conclude art “does nothing.”
Despite its frequent bleakness, the novel ends with a glimmer of hope, with a dream. Even as the world burns and society collapses in on itself, life goes on. There is some peace in realizing no matter how ugly or moronic or destructive people can be, the oblivious earth will continue making laps around the sun—our mortal concerns ultimately matter not. Best of all, there is always an escape. Simply find your ideal gate.
Buy Vincent and Alice and Alice from Tyrant Books here.