The Call: A Virtual Parable
by Pat Rushin
Burrow Press, 2015
116 pages, $15
Reviewed by Jared Smith
Science Fiction has plumbed the depths of human agency for more than a century. Works like Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 have become the paradigm for contemporary writers in the genre, specifically how they stretch the limits of reasonable human behavior.
Pat Rushin’s new novella, The Call, may not reach the dizzying heights achieved by its more famous predecessors, but Rushin has succeeded in crafting a character who forces the reader to question their own human values in light of the action unfolding on the page. The work’s main character and narrator, Mr. Roberts, is a hopeless homebody who works for a mysterious agency “crunching entities” from an outdated computer in his tiny apartment, waiting for a call that is going to change his life in “indescribably delicious” ways. The central question addressed within The Call is very similar to the seminal sci-fi works mentioned above, specifically regarding how the narrator perceives himself. You’re left asking one thing about Mr. Roberts throughout: Who is this guy?
In the same way that Bernard Marx and Winston Smith tackle the ongoing conundrum of their individuality, Mr. Roberts is faced repeatedly with inquiries into the nature of his living state. It’s obvious early on that his isolation from society has been brought on by a separation from his wife and children, and he spends the rest of the novella trying to fill that particular void in ways you probably wouldn’t describe as delicious.
His first foray into the outside world comes courtesy of “Phoneman,” who has appeared at Roberts’ behest to solve the incessant ringing of his phone—from all conceivable callers except the one he professes to be looking for. Their interaction is our first true window into the narrator’s mind, and he continues throughout the work to be exposed fully to the reader only in his reactions to other characters. Phoneman’s automated call-waiting loop is too effective a solution, as Roberts’ list of calls goes from too many to none.
When he calls to complain, Phoneman puts him in contact with yet another aliased character, only identifiable through her chosen profession: Troubleshooter. A thinly veiled dominatrix, Troubleshooter hooks up Roberts’ computer system to her own website, where he drives out the rest of her “customers” through a combination of blind fealty and dreary self-effacement. The narrator’s constant presence in her online domain is mistakenly identified by Troubleshooter as need for companionship, and she provides it on the only way she knows how: sexual deviance. Roberts finds himself appalled and unthinkingly rips the cables out of his computer, severing what seems to be his final chance at a connection.
Troubleshooter’s relationship with the narrator ends when he refuses her digital advances, citing his own uncertainty as the primary cause. This uncertainty begs the same “Who is this?” question, which to this point the reader (and Mr. Roberts) cannot possibly answer. Troubleshooter offers Roberts’ last shot at the redemption of his call-driven dreams: a possible rendezvous with a teenage computer prodigy named Ethan (also known as Bob), who is purported to have written such advanced code that he was terminated from his job at a leading software company.
Roberts’ interactions with Bob crystallize his own struggle, the challenge of rediscovering himself when all identifying features have been stripped away. At this point, Roberts in many ways resembles a teenager, trying to figure out exactly the kind of person he wants to be in a world that can’t possibly give him enough credit for simply living within it.
The fluid identities of the supporting characters make it that much harder for Roberts to supply a frame of reference. The interweaving of Roberts’ own desires with those of the people he meets, all of whom represent a type of identity crisis, keeps the narrative tension tight where the setting and singularity of motive might otherwise create some drag.
Bob hatches a plan to connect Roberts to the call he’s been waiting for, with his epiphany being that the call should come from Roberts himself, from some quanta of his own soul, which Bob thinks has somehow become disconnected from the narrator’s mind. The plastic, uncommunicative nature of the prose to this point supports Bob’s hypothesis, and I began to notice that as Roberts becomes a more dynamic character, so too does the work itself take on a welcome stylistic variance.
Bob’s electronic wizardry is put to good use he transforms Roberts’ old, damaged computer into a neural net with “write privileges” that just might reconnect the narrator with his own humanity, a dicey proposition at best. I was faced with an enigma of my own as Roberts’ relationship with Bob developed: Within the text, there are only rare glimpses of Roberts’ humanity (to this point obfuscated by his propensity for the royal “we,” and an equally obscure vocabulary), and I wanted nothing more than to find evidence of his moral imperative. There is a certain richness to be found in the narrator’s most mundane acts towards others, as they are intensely indicative of his half-formed motives and his still-unformed identity—two factors that contribute to one of the work’s strongest aspects, it’s fluid morality.
One of the best scenes has Bob taking Roberts for a walk to the park, the first venture he has made out of his apartment within the narrative. The excursion leads to an uncomfortable exchange with a woman and her daughter, mediated by a nearby policeman. Roberts’ experience with these minor characters sheds needed light on his thoughts, and give the reader their first real glimpse at who he is. Thanks to some slick talk from Bob, Roberts manages to escape without going to jail for propositioning the woman’s daughter. While his motives were pure (Roberts has already had a run-in with the sexual fringe), his naiveté almost landed him in serious trouble.
Roberts and Bob return to his cramped apartment, waiting for the final piece of Bob’s machine via mail. Upon its arrival, Bob completes construction and tops it off with a hit of homemade LSD to grease Roberts’ cognitive wheels as he goes searching for his own spirit. Once he has connected himself to Bob’s machine, it seems as though our narrator may finally get what he’s been searching for, the call that he has waited the length of the narrative to receive. He seems close to finding himself—teetering on the event horizon of his own mental singularity—when his epiphany is short-circuited by an interruption from the same policeman he saw in the park, who has appeared to arrest him on charges brought about by Ethan’s parents. This crashing halt in the narrative left me feeling an unexpected sympathy for Roberts, compounded by the intrinsic brevity of the story as a whole.
The reintroduction of the policeman provides a neat conceit for a theme explored through all the characters, that of the relationship between perception and identity. Phoneman went unidentified, except by his profession. Troubleshooter’s identity remained fluid through her chosen medium (the internet). Even Bob (nee Ethan) semi-seriously tells Roberts that he had in fact met not Ethan, but his twin brother during the initial stages of their relationship. When Ethan’s parents confront Roberts over the purchase made on their credit card to complete his soul-searching machine, it is easy to see that they have assigned an identity to their son in their zeal to protect him from “people like [Roberts],”one that has been constructed completely by them, with little or no input from Bob himself..
The policeman is the final piece of Rushin’s constructed puzzle, having his own perception of the narrator readily supplanted when it comes time to arrest him. That Roberts has entered an existential zone akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey is irrelevant—searching for his soul or not, his identity has been built out for him by the people he has chosen to let into his life. That the work ends with Roberts being carted off to jail for something he did not do is fitting, as it can be argued that he was already imprisoned by the assumptions of others as he searched for the freedom to be nothing more than himself.