Jim Knipfel is perhaps best known for his first book, Slackjaw (1999), an improbably hilarious account of his affliction with paranoia, depression, and retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that left him legally blind by his thirties. He has since written two more memoirs: a chronicle of his stay at a psychiatric clinic and a skeptical meditation on spirituality as a cure for suffering. Knipfel’s hardships, and the fierce wit he has developed to endure them, would seem to make him uniquely qualified to weather any bleak terrain with his sense of humor intact— even a dystopian future.
His third novel, Unplugging Philco, takes place in New York in the near future, more than a decade after Horribleness Day, when an unidentified object crashed into a grocery store in Mississippi, killing nearly a thousand people. In response, America has become a totalitarian state rife with absurdity: Everyone fears snitch, the Supreme National Information Technology Collection; Fashionism is a powerful political lobby; and the vicious Stroller Brigade, a faction of new mothers in Park Slope, Brooklyn, wield strollers tricked out with razor blades and accuse citizens of “un-mutualism” (akin to a lack of patriotism).
Amid all this is Wally Philco, a timid midlevel medical-claims adjuster. After attending a Horribleness Day Celebration, Wally decides he’s tired of being monitored. He begins unplugging himself from the government’s surveillance system—removing the screens from his apartment, the GPS chips from his skin, and “every other machine with meddling capabilities.” “This was no longer his world, his city—even his house,” the narrator observes, “and he wanted no part of it anymore. . . . [H]e wanted to be left alone.” When a revolutionary sect recruits him to help overthrow the established order, Wally joins the cause.
His involvement with the “Unpluggers,” however, feels forced, weakening a convincing premise. “Wally had no idea why he’d answered the door,” Knipfel writes, kicking off his protagonist’s descent into the underground. Wally’s rebel actions prove fruitless, allowing Knipfel to maintain that, in this modern world, efforts to combat evil are not only futile but embarrassingly naive.
This is an outlook shared by some of the author’s influences, namely Henry Miller and Céline. George Orwell, on the other hand, whose 1984 resembles Unplugging Philco in its depictions of thought police and pervasive censorship, would have angrily disputed such complacence. Knipfel seems to yearn for a simpler past without trying to imagine an other-than-despairing future. Instead, he deploys a surplus of Pynchonian acronyms, New York– centric gags, and complaints about the corrupt use of technology. “This, for godsakes, was a life-or-death battle between good and evil,” Wally concludes, on realizing the implications of his mission. Unfortunately, Unplugging Philco chooses not to take that struggle seriously.