'Sewer, Gas & Electric': Whither the wired?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Sewer, Gas & Electric," by Matt Ruff. Atlantic Monthly Press, 528 pages, $23.

In Matt Ruff's not-too-distant future (we're talking 2023 here, long after the African Pandemic of '04 has wiped out all the black people on earth except those with green eyes), civilization will be a stew of pop culture references, giant corporations and crumbling urban infrastructures.

Donald Trump will have left the stage (burned in Cape Canaveral launch pad fire while he was attempting to be the first Martian billionaire), but a really old kick-butt Queen Elizabeth II will still be clinging to the throne, unwilling to cede control to any of her no-goodnik family. Sophisticated, self-motivating androids will assume personalities of former headline makers - Ayn Rand, Abbie Hoffman - and they'll freely mingle with humans who reflect the melting-pot circumstances of the new millennium, resulting in names like Fatima Sigorski, Vanna Domingo and Toshiro Goodhead.

In Ruff's hopped-up fantasy a reconstituted but nevertheless identifiable New York City will still be a global nerve center, but a renegade submarine called Yabba-Dabba-Doo will also be a force to reckon with. CNN will rule the airwaves; CBS will have bitten the dust. And life as we know it will prove to have been engineered by a nefarious conspiracy between Walt Disney and J. Edgar Hoover.

Novels like "Sewer, Gas & Electric," meanwhile are proving to have been engineered by a generation of young writers raised with too much unsupervised access to "Sesame Street," USA Today, channel-surfing TV remote control devices and other amusements of the Short Attention Span Society.

They hop, these funky, smart-alecky fictions, they vibrate, they jump from on-line concept to concept, clever allusion to allusion (some, like David Foster Wallace's infinite "Infinite Jest," at obsessive length.) But in the accretion of nudge-in-the-ribs references and Zeitgeist riffs (the heroine of "Sewer" is the illegitimate test-tube daughter of "a radical nun who was part of a group of lesbian habit-burners who wanted the Pope's permission to be ordained and have babies") these prodigiously retentive post-modern Beavis and Butt-headed novelists can't seem to sit still long enough to make a point, deepen a theme, or take a chance on developing emotion.

Ruff (who published his first novel, "Fool on the Hill," when he was 23) is bursting with zany, nervy ideas: What if old Walt D., in collusion with J. Edgar Hoover, was secretly at work in old age developing a race of artificially intelligent 'droids who would rid the world of black folks? What if Ayn Rand (to whom the author dedicates this book) was right about Objectivism? What if alligators really did roam the sewers of NYC?

Well, what if? Ruff doesn't stop his snarky chatter long enough to look around; he's like those dudes on cable TV's "Mystery Science Theater 3000," making wisecracks at the screen while watching really bad movies. Jazzed as he is by coming up with the punchlines (a foster home is called "Mrs. Butterworth's Home for Unfortunately Displaced Indigenous Orphans"), excited as he to pay homage to his heroes with quotes from Rand, Hoffman, Stanislaw Lem, Kurt Vonnegut or Jules Verne, he misses a chance for a more profound statement about where we're going at the rate we're all proceeding in this wired world.

Lisa Schwarzbaum, a critic at Entertainment Weekly, wa previously a feature writer at the New York Daily News and has worked for the Boston Globe and the Real Paper.

Pub Date: 1/19/97

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