REVIEW: Petrichor by David Scott Ewer

David Scott Ewers’ Petrichor is a novel about a man in the clutches of a mysterious and omniscient corporation. It is a novel about the same man writing a memoir about his experiences with that corporation, only instead of typing his words he scratches them into the ground of a California desert. It is a Pynchonian book about an aspiring but shiftless writer, Stevie, stumbling upon this memoir’s words and the charred remains of a corpse that lies nearby in a tidy little pile.

Steve is tasked by the local police to narrate the story into a Dictaphone. It’s Stevie’s first job in a while as he’s spent most of his time since high school taking amphetamines with his friends. He finds an acute pleasure in the work, especially when he realizes that David Edwards, the apparent author of the words, has experienced some pretty nutty things. David’s tale focuses on his involvement in a mysterious corporation with the sufficiently innocuous name of Paradigm. His “handsomely paid” job there requires little more than his physical presence and the occasional signature on the odd document. He apparently spends the rest of his time writing about Paradigm. As Stevie reads through the memoir, we learn of David’s first interview with Paradigm, during which accounts of his personal history — such as his drinking habits, reviews of his substitute teaching from students, and a first hand account of how David would deal out free coffee for robust tips when he was a barista — are read aloud. The further David goes into the corporation, the more he realizes that Paradigm is everywhere in his life and that their knowledge is both exquisitely accurate and meticulously complete.

In the foreground of the novel, Stevie tries to parse his own romantic feelings for a high school crush and the purpose of his life. His world is seemingly untouched by David’s knowledge of Paradigm and the ensuing paranoia. Stevie can still dabble in half-hearted poetry and debate with himself about whether or not signing a note to a crush “Love, Stevie” is creepy or not because he’s spent so much time thinking about whether it’s creepy or not. It’s easy to see Stevie accepting the Terms of Service every time he updates iTunes without reading what it says. Though he lacks David’s suspicions, we know that Stevie, like the rest of us, is clearly within the scope of someone’s surveillance.

Ewers has managed to create a document that is extremely unsettling. Although its ending is mopey — not unlike a conclusion tacked on by a Hollywood producer worried about an overly traumatic denoument — it creates a mental state that few intellectual thrillers can achieve. This state, which comes from the deft layering of narratives featuring characters in various states of creeping paranoia, is one of extreme equilibrium that is also a whirling vortex of insecurity and dread. While reading, I had the feeling that everything is connected to everything else in a pleasant, Taoist kind of way. But that connection slowly becomes more sinister as I begin to suspect that someone, somewhere, right now, who I do not know, is furtively watching me watch the Young and the Restless naked, eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, all while writing this review. Or that there is someone who can extrapolate that fact from my internet traffic, cable TV subscription, and FreshDirect invoice.

Petrichor is an investigation of that oh-so-modern feeling that nothing is private anymore. Ewers has created many of those weird literary moments where the brain becomes a perspectival vortex that is constantly looking at itself through itself. The recent revelations of the surveillance state courtesy of Edward Snowden only heighten this effect. And did I mention that Petrichor also features a hilarious ex-pat Frenchman trying to bring Ambrose Bierce back from the dead? I love these types of books. And based on your browsing and shopping history, I think you’ll like this book, too.

Petrichor

by David Scott Ewers

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