The Last Book Ever Written is a cautionary tale that reads like a 1950s noir novel. Despite its thoughtful and well-thought-out characters and plot, it suffers from the earnestness of its social commentary. The writing itself is very formal and straightforward and reads like a report. While this is functional in terms of relaying the action and information, it lacks poetry and makes the reading itself tedious. It reminded me of reading Ayn Rand’s Anthem, but I have to admit I appreciated Anthem more than The Last Book Ever Written in part, I think, because the main character in Anthem has no knowledge of the past, and that past seems very very distant. Whereas the main character in The Last Book Ever Written does know his history, yet he remains a very naïve character and I had a hard time sympathizing with him. The book’s themes too – that creativity is needed, that we should talk to each other more than look at our iPhones – felt overly simplistic to the point of patronizing. I applaud the author for writing the book because it is well done overall, I just wanted to like it a lot more than I actually did.
From the publisher:
In a futuristic American society where all citizens have computerized chips in their brains and insert needles into their veins to enter a virtual reality, Victor Vale leads a fairly typical life. He is an officer of the law with greater ambitions, a family man, and a dutiful citizen of the Nation. Yet when The Chief assigns him a case to go undercover and expose a community of illegal “creators,” Victor finds himself strangely compelled to write. For the first time, he starts to question the world around him, and becomes involved in a web of lies, uncertain of whom to trust, and unable to distinguish between virtualism and reality. As he searches for answers, Victor slowly begins to unravel hidden truths about the world, and even uncovers an astonishing secret from his own past. The Last Book Ever Written satirizes our competitive, success-driven society, foresees the effects of the economic recession, and warns what could happen if we let technology go too far.
The Last Book Ever Written is a cautionary tale that reads like a 1950s noir novel. We meet the detective on the case – the guy just trying to get along, support his family, be a good citizen – but there’s a deeper yearning, insights that make him question the people he’s supposed to trust and the system he’s supposed to uphold. The world he lives in feels like Gotham or any other graphic novel set in the “not too distant future” where the upperclass have separated themselves completely from the lower classes. Detective Victor Vale is one of the only upperclassmen who walk through the slums and interact with the beggars. He is both drawn to and repulsed by these beggars, and he’s unsure of his own motivations even as others around him like his partner Kenneth or his boss The Chief believe he does it to show his bravery.
In the first few pages, we learn that Kenneth is a hot-tempered cop and also Victor’s superior and Victor is looking for a promotion. When Kenneth mercilessly kills a beggar in front of Victor on the steps of the police station, it pushes Victor to stand up for what’s right and testify that Kenneth was responsible for the recent death of a TPF agent (like the FBI) who work directly for their leader, President Lapin. Enraged, Kenneth is fired and Victor is given the opportunity to make First Detective if he solves the next case: a well-known publisher, Sylvester Huppington, is thought to be harboring “creators” – a rebel movement working to overthrow Lapin.
There’s a lot of commentary about humans and the technology that’s so integrated into their lives. Automatrons are now fully functioning “people” working as servants for upperclass households. Everyone is addicted to their embedded computer chip that functions like an iPhone in your brain where you can access any information or take and store photos with the swipe of an eye. You can even inject yourself with some sort of serum that will let you “transform” into other people where you see through their eyes and experience the world as someone else – usually a famous person. You can transmit your holographic form – which is almost corporeal – to school or somewhere else, and in some cases when you transform you can actually transmit it into the real world, which is an indication of a severe addiction to the “UNICÉ” internet that’s permanently attached to your body. Victor often wonders what it would be like if he and his wife actually talked to each other at dinner instead of stared off at something neither one of them could see. People use sleep suits and also sex suits that help them perform, but seem to take away the spontaneity and emotion of the act. And for some reason, creativity is severely limited. No writing other than works that support the regime led by President Lapin, no artwork except for portraits of President Lapin, and other forms of creation such as pregnancy and home decorating are only hinted at.
As Victor goes under cover to infiltrate this possible rebel group called ARM – the “Art Resistance Movement” – he is forced to become a creator in order to prove his allegiance. He begins to write, and through that he starts to question more about his world and what’s right. He finds his own son, Tommy, hiding drawings that would be considered illegal, and it seems that death is the punishment for all crimes in this world.
Huppington supports and pushes Victor to dig deep and it ends up feeling like a creative writing class in novel form.
[Huppington writes out his directions to Victor – presumably to prevent any wiretaps from overhearing] Write about the first time you started to get these feelings…about the world we live in. When a change in your thoughts or your beliefs began. “What if I get stuck?” [Victor asks.] Tap into your subconscious mind. If you get stuck, don’t try to fight it. If you’re really struggling, close your eyes and clear your mind. The ideas will come. Now write. Where does your story begin?
Victor ends up getting inspired by these sessions, protective of his manuscript, things that are frowned upon in his society. His undercover assignment becomes his reality and his real life becomes the world in which he needs to hide is “true” identity. But he loves his wife, Anji, and his son, and wants to protect them from what he realizes is becoming a dangerous situation because not only is he caught up with the creators, but he is in a society that will punish his family for his own sins.
The Last Book Ever Written is the outcome of these exercises. It is purported as Victor Vale’s manuscript.
The book is well structured and it threads together the little details presented in the beginning, but it also leaves other details unresolved. What is the importance of Victor’s father-in-law’s possible corruption? Why do we see Victor’s lifelong hero, Detective Conrad, pawning his badge? What is the true risk associated with creativity? Why can’t we be possessive of our creations? It’s not like anyone is paying more attention to each other anyways with the “UNICÉ” and such. How can automatrons truly pass as human? Because of these remaining questions, I didn’t truly feel the impact of art being banned. In addition, the message that creativity is needed in life seems overly simplistic. The need for people to talk to one another instead of looking at their embedded information gateway also seemed like an archaic point: like a grandfather bemoaning those darn kids who are always on their gadgets. There’s no resolution presented for this dilemma, no middle ground between the advancements of technology and our own biological needs.
There is a lot of social commentary and it is certainly and thoughtful and well-thought-out book, but it suffers from its earnestness. The film director Billy Wilder (SOME LIKE IT HOT, THE APARTMENT) always said to let your audience figure things out for themselves. The Last Book Ever Written is so very clearly pointing out the things to watch out for, the things to think about, the things to know. There are road signs in bright yellow pointing THIS WAY! as you read and I wanted it to be buried under as subtext instead. It’s very methodical and logical and linear. There aren’t any red herrings and while the return of Kenneth at the end is somewhat surprising, his behavior at the beginning was so apparently BAD AND MUST BE ADDRESSED that I knew he had to have some role in the ending. Ultimately, as I mentioned before, it reads like a 1950s noir or a graphic novel. It’s interesting and archetypal but didn’t resonate with me.
A writer, teacher, and student of the world, Jonah Kruvant received his Bachelor’s degree from Skidmore College, his Master’s degree in Teaching from Fordham University and his MFA degree from Goddard College. After living abroad in four different countries, Jonah lives in New York. Visit his website at www.jonahkruvant.com