In 1948, George Orwell horrified the English-speaking world with his dystopian novel, 1984. The book codified the dystopian genre, depicting a future human race that had been totally subjugated and had no chance of liberation. Since then, dystopian fiction has become more and more popular. In Garbage In, Gospel Out, from independent publisher Space Cowboy Books, we have a poetic twist on the genre. Author Jean-Paul L. Garnier draws inspiration from the soullessness of modern lifestyles to depict a world on the edge of science fiction and fantasy, where accuracy and time itself are fluid concepts. It’s a wild ride.

Garnier has clearly invested a lot of thought into the modern lifestyle. In the book’s dedication, he lampoons corporate America’s “attitude of short term gain in exchange for long term tragedy” — it’s a dedication that perfectly encapsulates the book’s viewpoint and message. Protagonist Frank Johnson’s role, similar to that of 1984’s Winston Smith, is to write ‘reports’ for an all-controlling ‘Bureau’. His job, in essence, is to compose elaborate, meaningful-sounding gobbledygook to be published and distributed to the public in place of… you know, actual fact. We get to read several of these reports, which largely consist of cliched phrases or ideas strung together in ways that seem on the surface to be connected, letting the reader’s mind drift along on a current of association and assumption. Once completed, these reports are dispatched through a network of courier tubes to a network of Managers, none of whom Frank ever interacts with personally. It’s a system based on isolation and confusion, but even that is obfuscated with a directive to enjoy the work and a ‘personal’ touch from the supervisor.

In his work, Frank is quite good at finding the right balance between apparent meaning and actual meaninglessness, and his skill is noticed by his superiors — who begin to commission special ‘personal’ reports from him about the imminent End. Despite his complete lack of understanding about what his employer actually wants, and how exactly his performance is judged, Frank throws himself into his expanding role with relish, seeking to prove that management’s faith in him is justified. At least, that’s what it seems like — poor Frank’s reports, intentionally or not, start getting a little too close to being accurate for the Bureau’s liking. His unwitting disposition for truth puts him in opposition to a global system whose purpose is to distort, fabricate, and obfuscate the nature of history and human life for its citizens. All the while, the mysterious End draws ever closer, and only a select few will find themselves in positions of advantage when it arrives.

Frank’s career at the Bureau and the text of his reports are the framework of the narrative. Threaded between them are a number of short stories, about Frank’s life and others, that delve deep into elements of speculative fiction and magical realism, including devices that alter the behavior of other human beings, time-traveling vacations, and full on interstellar ‘ark’ ships. Readers may recognise some tropes from other fiction, but Garnier largely enlivens them with his own twists, turning away from cliché toward thoughtful prose. The story’s climax is an enthralling scene that blends confusion, loneliness and desperation, followed up by the classic dystopian explanation of how this elaborate system of oppression works.

Garnier’s language is evocative throughout — whether it’s profound or just melodramatic will depend on the reader. That’s how it is with poetry. But at his best, Garnier invites us to consider the nature of our own reality in new ways. While Frank Johnson’s Earth may be fictional and fantastical, it is inspired by our culture, and similarities between this fictional world and our real one should in turn inspire reflection in the reader. How do the modern-day doom-and-gloom news media and insider jargon of corporate buzzwords echo the output of the Bureau? How much would it take for our world to resemble this one? The answer may be uncomfortable. 

As with many books, a reader should be able to tell on the first page whether this is a text they’re interested in reading. Garnier opens with a perfect example of the book’s dedication to shattering cliché and getting the reader to think beyond the facade of modern technology into what our lives are actually, existentially like. Instead of “waking up from a dream,” Frank “remove[s] himself from subjective reality.” Towels are “spent seed casings.” A car engine is an “ancient forest”. It is easy in our day-to-day lives to forget the component parts that make up our various devices and conveniences, and when we do, we stop understanding them as they really are.

The text flows back and forth from this kind of poetic prose to outright poetry, which can at times be difficult to follow — the text is intended to come across as nonsensical or convoluted in places, but in some cases can come off as just plain purple. Casual readers unfamiliar with poetry should understand that this kind of language has a flow and elusiveness that is alien to popular prose. This kind of writing is to be thoughtfully considered, but not always taken as literal. It’s okay if there’s something that doesn’t make logical sense; it isn’t always the point to make meaning. This is still a novel, though, with a comprehensible conflict and plot progression. Coming in at a hundred pages, the book is short, but dense.

In a period of global pandemic, enforced solitude, and a painful awareness of the limits of our modern world, Garbage In, Gospel Out speaks to our time. It’s a depressing and challenging read, one that will befuddle some readers and frustrate others; but on the other hand, this is exactly the right time to critically examine how the advances and regressions of modernity influence our lives and our perceptions of reality. This reviewer recommends picking up a copy to support local bookstores, then taking time to read and reflect with a thoughtful mind and heart.

Publisher: Space Cowboy Books
Author: Jean-Paul L. Garnier
Title: Garbage In, Gospel Out
Formats: Paperback
Price: $11
Pages: 100
ISBN: 9781732825727

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