Archive for Sunday, June 27, 2004

Review: ‘Artificial Woman’ a great summer read

June 27, 2004

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"Never having found a real woman with whom he could sustain a more than temporary connection, Ellery Pierce, a technician at a firm that made animatronic creatures for movie studios and theme parks, decided to fabricate one from scratch."

This opening line of Thomas Berger's latest novel, "Adventures of the Artificial Woman," sets a sly tone for one of the most comical reads of the summer. A master of sardonic wit, Berger's novel is the perfect antidote to the recent remake of "The Stepford Wives." Although Berger's plot may seem equally campy, he strengthens it by touching on themes of power and femininity and adding some outrageous twists.

After 23 novels, one might expect Berger to be running out of ideas. At 80 years old he has garnered a Pulitzer Prize nomination for "The Feud" and has been called "One of the century's most important writers" by the London Times Literary Supplement. Berger's last novel, "Best Friends," was dark and thick with heavy dialogue. By contrast, "Adventures of the Artificial Woman" is a raucous farce that can be described as a science-fiction version of "Pygmalion."

Ellery Pierce, twice divorced, wants female companionship without all the hassle that goes along with having a real partner. He works on constructing a female robot for years, stealing parts from his job and staying up late. Pierce fine-tunes everything on his animatronic, from her warm body temperature to the pitch of her voice.

At last he creates the woman of his dreams. Phyllis is programmed to say "God, how I want you" and to fix Pierce's favorite drink at day's end.

But despite her inability to feel emotion, Phyllis grows bored of the housewife lifestyle as soon as she masters it. Staying home and watching soap operas all day gives her grand ideas of becoming famous, and she soon leaves Pierce to make it on her own in show business.

And make it she does. Phyllis needs no food, shelter or sleep, so she is able to work tirelessly toward her dream of being a movie star. She only needs to be re-charged periodically, and any laptop station will do for that. With a computer for a brain, Phyllis is able to remember everything she reads, giving her the ability to quote entire Shakespeare plays at will.

While Phyllis climbs the social ladder, Pierce sinks further and further. It is only after Phyllis leaves that he realizes he truly loved her. With surprise, Pierce realizes he created Phyllis to be sexy and submissive, but her independence is what captivates him.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is certainly not that Pierce should look for love in humans, rather than robots. In fact, it makes perfect sense that he loves Phyllis. Her beauty, ambition and constant rationality make her an idyllic partner.

Rather, the lesson is how robotic Berger's humans seem in comparison with animatronics. Berger's real characters are cold-hearted, dim-witted fellows who seem content following the crowd. When the general populous also falls in love with Phyllis, it is clear that Berger is making a point about those who society idolizes.

Frankly, though, this novel would be best read without looking for a deeper meaning. Rich in fast-paced plot but lacking in most everything else, this will probably not be remembered as one of Berger's finest works. But its light absurdity makes it perfect for a day at the beach or a night on the porch.

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