We live in an age easily satirized. Our obsession with the world of celebrity is well documented by the proliferation of tabloid and fashion magazines, which spawn fully formed cultures that arbitrate an ever-changing definition of style. Everything exists to be seen, and the available forums for visibility are more extensive than ever before, encompassing an astonishing variety of mediums. And as we are voraciously consuming images, the media is working just as hard to manufacture them, perpetuating a loop of production and consumption in which some say it is difficult to distinguish what is real anymore. Everything is filtered through the unblinking eyes of popular media outlets, each run by its own corporation with its own agenda for what we should be seeing. It has become a truism that we are starved for images; the only question is what we should be fed.
Jon Armstrong's debut novel, Grey, is the story of Michael Rivers, the heir to RiverGroup, a major corporation in a world run exclusively by major corporations—a world of "corporate selection," where "only the smart survive" (139). Michael rebels against Armstrong's rather dystopic vision of the future, in which the media has overtaken the government and the world is now hopelessly attached to celebrity and fashion, and he seeks love and understanding rather than power and status. As the novel begins, Michael is on a date with Nora, a woman from another company whom he is supposed to marry to secure a major corporate merger between their two families. He is quickly falling in love with her, but at the end of the date the arrangement goes sour when someone attempts to assassinate Michael. For the rest of the novel, Michael is distinctly single-minded in his pursuit of Nora—despite a sudden feud between their two families—and the familiar circumstances of the star-crossed-lovers scenario propel the plot, forcing Michael to come to terms with the realities of the world in which he lives.
The love affair between Michael and Nora mimics that of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in various ways, not the least of which is that the two fall in love while knowing very little about each other and thereafter never doubt the purity of their love. What draws Michael to Nora most of all is the fact that they share an obsession with Pure H, a fashion magazine; "We quoted from it, dressed and struck poses like the models, and felt that we were just like the beautiful and tragic people of our dreams" (1). This is important because they live in a world of imitation, where individual magazines—of which Pure H is just one of the first among many—generate extremely devoted communities of followers and people are identified on the basis of which magazine culture they embody; which is to say, individuals are specifically identified based on their particular media consumption. In Armstrong's world, the media is the primary factor in the development of our identities. Throughout the novel, Michael explains and interprets things in relation to advertisements he remembers from Pure H. The magazine adds a poetry to his life, providing a way for him to assimilate the images he acquires in his daily life to the general narrative provided by the magazine. It becomes a reference point for the reader as well: Michael's personal advisor, a woman named Joelene, explains that a particular photograph from Pure H was "about the beautiful inevitability of entropy, the wilting of flowers, the browning of leaves, the cooling of cream coffees, the fading of color" (22), as though foreshadowing Michael's descent throughout the novel, as he begins to lose his hold on everything dear to him—and some things he never even knew existed.
The fact that Michael and Nora share a taste for Pure H is almost as important as the fact that they are both grey. The title of Armstrong's novel refers to a particular way of seeing the world. Michael has voluntarily undergone a surgical procedure that destroyed all the cone cells in the retina of one of his eyes, thus rendering his world colorless, composed only of varying shades of grey. Choosing to be grey in a world dominated by a whirlwind of images is a bold statement, an act of defiance: it represents the choice to be turned off to the onslaught of media manipulation. "This black and white version was the real me," Michael explains, "the me within the hues" (42). Nora has undergone the same transformation, and the couple end up using this shared trait to communicate; when Michael is forced to go on another televised date with a girl from a different company, his tailor paints messages on his clothes that can only be seen by those who are grey.
Michael originally desires the surgery because of his problematic relationship with his father, as being grey "was the opposite of father's garish colors, the reverse of his style and manner" (229), but he comes to understand more about the nature of grey, noting that "because its parents were black and white, no color in the spectrum was the offspring of such complete opposites, and as such no other tone could ever represent and encompass the vast distances between those extremes, that of light and dark, life and death, and good and evil" (229). The fact that Michael only has the surgery on one of his eyes is telling: it represents a continued struggle between all of those various extremes, which catalyze in his relationship with his father. Armstrong successfully crafts Hiro Bruce Rivers into a caricature, a CEO who surrounds himself with yes-men (including an assistant who literally has the letters Y-E-S stenciled in blue across his front teeth) and is obsessed with Ültra culture (another variant of fashion identity, one specifically at odds with Pure H) and the success of his company at all costs. While Michael exists in a world of grey, his father worships color and spectacle, inflicting "color therapy" on Michael after his attempted assassination, a procedure that involves a screen of colors presented directly in front of the face, which Michael describes as "the flaring horrors of photochromism" (12). In conversation, Michael and his father demonstrate the source of their divergence from one another:
After a snort of a laugh, [father] said, "The world is actually in color. Like the sun is orange. The sky is blue." He inhaled and then bellowed, "And snot is green!"
"The soul," I said, "is colorless."
"The soul?" He looked off camera. "Like he knows the soul!" (74)
Michael's mother appears early in the novel and is an immediate counterpoint to Hiro. She visits her son after his attempted assassination, begging Michael to join his "real family" and to come live with her as part of Tanoshi No Wah, a community of performers in "the slubs," the areas populated by people not members of the corporate families (or Armstrong's ruling class), constructed in the novel as dangerous others. Michael initially dismisses her blather about the families being "evil and ruthless . . . lumps of stolen flesh" (27) but later decides to visit her, thus discovering that the community is actually made up of other children of his father, all born with various mutations, who have been used as "spare parts" to form Michael as the prototype of a complete, perfect human being. This discovery throws Michael's whole understanding of family into question. Which is his true family—Tanoshi No Wah or RiverGroup? Mother or father? Or some grey area in between? The idea that "family" has become conflated with the notion of corporate identity (or corporate affiliation) in Armstrong's novel allows this drama to play out effectively and satisfyingly, as Michael is forced to renounce his family, or corporate, name—"I am not a Rivers anymore" (46)—in order to, as it were, find his true family, divorced from any corporate relationship.
Armstrong is frequently funny, displaying a honed wit and well-developed sense of the ridiculous. However, Grey initially appears to fall victim to the common flaws of satire: the characters seem to be simply stand-ins for ideas rather than fully formed people, and the narrative often relies on seemingly arbitrary plot twists and unclear character motivations that propel the action to the appropriately hard-hitting climax. Michael's convictions are never quite believable, as he is supposedly grappling with issues of great import but responds to them almost arbitrarily, rarely displaying any sort of emotional connection to the way his world is unraveling right before his eyes. He haphazardly decides to resort to extremely drastic measures to solve his problems once and for all, and I am not convinced that he ever really understands what he is doing. However, there is another reading deserving of consideration: Michael is a demonstration of the effect of a media-saturated society on the individual, reducing him to a random, disconnected existence without any sense of causality or consequence. Looked at this way, we can then see Michael as the representation of our own lack of agency in a society dominated by popular media.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the novel to believe is Michael's utter devotion to Nora. After only meeting her a few times for highly scripted "dates" designed for a television audience, he is willing to literally throw his entire life away in order to be with her, so deep is his love. Yet ultimately he knows next to nothing about her, except that she likes Pure H and that she is grey, which are obviously huge factors for Michael but hardly unique. Nora is simply the one he wants, and he decides to do everything in his power to be with her, renouncing his family and his past. However, he never actually develops a plan that will end satisfactorily for him, no matter how implausible, and ends up relying on a rather arbitrary course of events to somehow steer him in the direction of an acceptable end to his traumatic circumstances. But again, this can be turned around: the criticism of Michael and Nora—a criticism of the inherent superficiality of love in our society, related more to class and social distinctions than actual personal connection—seems to be part of Armstrong's general project. Michael and Nora fail to overcome the superficiality of their world when they develop a relationship based on little more than material similarities. However, if a climax involving Michael rejecting the media-saturated society in favor of the "purity" of his love for Nora is supposed to redeem him in any way, we would have to believe that his love is wholly separate from media influence, and that is not the case here.
It is fitting that Grey ends with a grand spectacle staged specifically for an audience. The entire world watches the finale take place, automatically raising the stakes, and Armstrong does not fail to deliver a jam-packed course of events—loyalties tested, deceptions revealed, sacrifices made. The idea that the novel's climax comes only when the characters deviate from the script during a massive event staged for consumption by an audience starved for any piece of the culture of celebrity and style is a final statement of rebellion against the unreality of the media and the futility of shaping one's real identity to fit the parameters of an adopted one. In Armstrong's world, media has replaced memory; when Michael tries to recall Nora's appearance late in the novel, he finds that "without the help of video or images, it was difficult to exactly recall the shape of her hairline, how her eyebrows curved, or the precise timbre of her voice" (230). The media has been his filter for reality for so long that he has forgotten how to build his own memories, forgotten how to construct for himself a way in which to view the world. And this is what Grey does best: without telling us how to see, it urges us to look for ourselves.
Richard Larson currently lives in New York City, where he is finishing a degree at Hunter College and working variously in the film and publishing industries. His fiction has appeared in several places, including Electric Velocipede and Penumbric SF, and he also maintains a blog at rlarson.typepad.com.