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Searching for Petronius Totem

by Peter Unwin

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The 21st-century digitized world – replete with technology that allows governments to surveil their own citizens and corporations to engage in ever-more-sophisticated target marketing as a means of selling their customers’ own obsessions back to them – should be ripe for satire. But there is a compelling argument to be made that our globally networked society has outpaced the genre, which relies for its effects on grotesque exaggeration. In the big-data-saturated present, ubiquitous CCTV cameras monitor our every move; so-called “five eyes” governments spy on their own citizens and share information under the guise of protecting the democratic world from terrorism; and digital giants like Google and Facebook monetize our every keystroke and click-through by mining our most sensitive personal information and offering it for sale to the highest bidder. The world that we have come to passively accept as normal would have given George Orwell and Aldous Huxley apoplexy.

This puts the postmodern satirist in something of a difficult bind: how is it possible to satirize a dystopian global technopoly that seems dead set on satirizing itself? Toronto author Peter Unwin gamely takes up the challenge in his latest novel, a coruscating, frustrating, and sometimes blisteringly funny evisceration of sacred cows in the realms of digital technology, identity politics, and CanLit. Searching for Petronius Totem stakes out territory seldom travelled by authors more frequently concerned with a recondite, politically correct pose: the novel features not one but two highly unsympathetic white male protagonists, a scathing excoriation of national literary pieties, and a cynical picture of a technological future driven by base desires and greed. It’s a blazingly unadulterated vision. It’s also likely to piss off a whole lot of people.

The central character in the book is the narrator, Jack Vesoovian, a self-proclaimed “literary artist” (he rails against the indignity of being called a mere “author,” much less a “successful author,” which he equates with being a sell-out). Jack travels from Hamilton to the remote banks of Lake Superior in an attempt to locate his erstwhile companion Petronius Totem, a fellow literary artist who has disappeared after being disgraced twice – once having been falsely accused of using a girls’ writing camp as a front for an underage sex cult, and again after his memoir, Ten Thousand Busted Chunks, praised as “a staggering work of honesty,” is revealed to be mostly fiction. Along the way, Jack is dogged by shadowy figures in the employ of Leggit Fibre Optic, a company that has developed a brand of edible flying robotic chickens (don’t ask) and that has its own reasons for wanting to track down Petro.

There is no denying Unwin’s audacity, or his willingness to stick his thumbs in numerous gaping eyes, not least those that tear up at the very mention of political incorrectness. Jack, for example, is the living, breathing embodiment of a particular brand of egocentric, entitled white male author. (A fairly clear stand-in for Charles Bukowski, Jack’s most famous work is a book entitled The Fly that Would Not Die for Love but Did Anyway.) Charged with videotaping his daughter’s ballet recital, he instead focuses his camera on the girl’s teacher (or, more specifically, the teacher’s breasts). When his furious wife, Elaine, confronts him about this, Jack reaches for insupportable claims of artistic purity: “I tried to pacify her with a swift and professorial ‘auteur’ interpretation of the filmic object, beginning with Eisenstein and ending with the French New Wave, and Truffaut’s insistence that the female form was the filmic end in itself due to its inherent filmability.” Jack feels that Elaine’s biggest problem is that “her mind had been warped by two decades of Female Transformation Novels (FTNs) and by a half century of oh-so-intricate Finely Wrought Psychological Masterpieces (FWPMs) chock full of detailed characterizations, carefully thought-out plot arcs, and edgy thematic transitions etc.”

Petro – note the diminutive, a sly dig at an iconic Canadian energy company (Dofasco gets name-checked elsewhere) – is similarly reprehensible: he once got a grant to write a non-fiction work called The Perfect Blowjob: A User’s Guide (here Unwin slays two birds with one perfectly aimed satirical stone). Yet as a corrective to a particular kind of sclerotic, hidebound naturalism, and a scold against literary hypocrisy, he hits the mark more often than not, as when he chastises Jack for assuming he can “indulge in the ramifying elements in D.H. Lawrence, while sidestepping the excoriating racism of Céline.” When Unwin focuses his satirical eye on the self-absorption and sophistry of an all-too-recognizable kind of literary figure, his novel is simultaneously fractious and very funny.

Not everything in the novel works equally well. The subplot involving Leggit Fibre Optics and its plans to use its robotic chicken meals as a means to achieve global digital hegemony feels tacked on, and Petro’s insistence on pornography as the logical end point of all technology is somewhat stale. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the up-to-the-moment critique of our virtual-reality culture that proves most resistant to the satirical impulse. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to fault the novel for its brazenness or its stylistic purity. In some ways, Searching for Petronius Totem reads like the bastard love child of Northrop Frye and William S. Burroughs – a scabrous, gleefully offensive, high-energy ride across a landscape that looks oddly familiar, but is viewed at an oblique angle and through a purposefully distorted lens.