The premise of Stephen Wright’s fifth and latest novel, Processed Cheese (Little, Brown and Company, 2020), is highly improbable and weirdly believable. A bag of money falls out of the sky (think Lotto and Powerball), and lands in front of an unemployed man named Graveyard, who picks it up.
Unnoticed by every other pedestrian (the one exception being a surveillance camera), he manages (after changing taxis) to bring it back to his apartment, where his girlfriend, Ambience, has been lying in bed all day, “propped up on giant pillows a rancid shade of orange” because “[s]he just wasn’t feeling good about herself.”
A few pages later we learn that the money belongs to MisterMenu who lives with MissusMenu “high atop the Eyedropper Building, fifty-two stories above the hullabaloo.”
Disgusted by her husband’s slovenly behavior (“I refuse to spend the night lying there in bed awake, thinking about those globs of jelly stuck to my floor”), MissusMenu has thrown one of his many duffel bags full of “real” money off the terrace of their penthouse duplex. It seems that MisterMenu keeps the bags of money around the apartment because they offer “a specific comfort and solidity he’s been unable find anywhere else.”
There you have it, America in a nutshell: two couples, each with their own power dynamic, who comprise the haves and the have-nots. The haves — who are alternately respected, envied, and imitated — possess far more than they can spend, while the have-nots, who don’t have much of anything, are deemed failures and losers who get the nothing they deserve.
In a world divided between gated communities, expansive designer domiciles, and white-glove penthouses on one side and housing projects, rickety mobile homes, and overcrowded, unsanitary reservations on the other, the parts of America’s segregated society seldom, if ever meet. The only social definable groups are the rich, the servant class, and the bottom of the barrel. Graveyard and Ambience hover between the bottom two groups, unable to rise into the servant class but not quite falling far enough to be considered completely hopeless.
(Reality check: Can you imagine Jeff Bezos or, to riff on Wright’s nomenclature, MisterAmazon, sitting down and having a meaningful dinner and conversation with one of his wage slaves? Do you think Bezos would even listen to the employee’s complaints? It’s not his job, right?)
MisterMenu has someone on his payroll to help him track down his bag of money, a fixer whose name is DelicateSear. But then, just as you think you know what is going to happen next (if not exactly how), things get more outlandish.
This is only one part of the bitterly satirical story that Wright tells. You can almost imagine pitching the plot of Processed Cheese as a Hollywood movie: screwball comedy meets high-tech revenge thriller. The keyword is “almost,” because Processed Cheese is brimming with Wright’s riffs on the relentless, mind-numbing barrage of bullshit hucksterism that rains down on our heads all day long (“hi-def Humongotron”).
In Processed Cheese, wildly imaginative mashups of American vernacular with brand names and catchy slogans memorably convey the growing sinkhole hollowness of everyday speech. People have names like RealDeal, Mr. FlavorAdditive, and Uncle Parsnips. The novel is as much about the replacement of language with gibberish as it is about the desire for the perfect lifestyle (“settled into his special custom built PleasureForm erotognomic chair”).
The single goal of such insistently repetitious overtures is to coerce the consumer to binge, go overboard, indulge in excess, which is what everyone in Processed Cheese does. In Wright’s view of America, everybody is either striving for excess or already gorging. Those are the only two states of existence. There is no middle ground and no such thing as moderation, because that would be a betrayal of capitalism and the American way.
Flush with their newfound wealth, Graveyard and Ambience finally have the chance to eat at a restaurant run by a celebrity chef:
They liked snacks. All things salt and sugary. They had SnookerChips. They had Bango Nuts. They had CheesySubs. They had ToastedPepperWackies. And FruityPatooties. And LoopyCrisps. And FudgieWudgiePudgies. Their favorite. A cookie inside a cookie. Munching on all this nasty fun kept their glucose levels up until their next restaurant debauch […] They went to DoNotAttempt. They had the EarlyRunoffSoup. The Spatchcocked-GooneyBird with a HornyNutGremolata. LickMyFingerlings. JollifiedGreens. BreadSpindles. And WhereberryPie in a zesty HardLuckSauce.
I could not make it through this list, whose portmanteaus hover somewhere between baby talk and nonsense, without stopping to catch my breath, to laugh, and to marvel at Wright’s precise sense of the consumerist language that has infiltrated every part of our lives.
We have become a society dominated by influencers, lifestyle coaches, and reality stars, in which knowing the name of a product determines your status on the ladder of connoisseurship, as well as your membership in a particular cliquish tribe.
The characters running amok through Processed Cheese are people who — no matter how much they consume, from food to sex — will never have enough. They are bottomless pits who can never fill their emptiness nor satisfy their craven fantasies, no matter how many times they watch “one of the top ten highest-grossing sites in the overheated virtual sexslave community.” As Walt Kelly’s comic strip character Pogo the possum said: “We have met the enemy and it is us.”
Wright’s humor is devastating, sharp, and constantly in-your face. I have not read such a musically cacophonous, devastatingly precise indictment of American shallowness since William Gaddis’s JR (1975).
Whether their demonic inspiration comes from the world of brand names or public relations, these novels share an absurd logic and rambunctious propulsion that lead to a grimly satisfying, yet oddly hopeful conclusion.
At times, Wright’s endless wave of concocted names becomes almost too much, which I think is a deliberate gamble on his part. It’s not that he doesn’t know when to stop. It’s that he knows the sales pitch never stops. From the moment we are brought into the light by a doctor, midwife, or doula, until the day we are buried or cremated by the Neptune Society, we are being sold one product after another that promises happiness and/or peace of mind.
Wright is a great American writer in the tradition of Nathaniel West and Gaddis. His writing can be funny, crude, acerbic, nonsensical, salacious, ornate, and excessive. He makes up a world in prose that is unlike anything else being written.
All three of these writers recognized that the American Dream was betrayed long ago, most likely soon after the Constitution was signed and ratified by the 13 colonies. If that is too bitter a pill for you to swallow, because some part of you is still nostalgic for a golden age that never existed, then you should read the blatantly staccato prose that Wright delivers to you. He is a technical virtuoso who speeds you along a darkly comical journey, disquieting and entertaining you in equal measure.
I think that America’s failure to recognize Wright’s greatness is a condemnation of a literary establishment that continues to reward the kind of mellifluous writing that conveys what reviewers like to call a perfect emotional pitch.
Wright looks beyond America’s sugarcoated veneer of respectability with a clear vision of the ridiculously hideous place this country has become. He isn’t trying to soothe us. He is asking us if we are long past the point of redemption.
Processed Cheese (2020) by Stephen Wright, published by Little, Brown and Company, is available from your local indie bookstore.