Book Review: The Epiphany Machine

The Epiphany Machineby David Burr GerrardPutnam, 2017Considering the now near-universality of the tattoo fad – try to find an otherwise-normal adult under the age of 40 who isn't festooned in poorly-done-but-nevertheless-permanent INK, so that every simple summer garden party now resembles the freak parade Ringling Bros used to charge you a dollar a head to see – it was probably inevitable that there would come along a big, meaningful tattoo novel, an earnest doorstop of literary aspirations that yearns to convey to a wider audience what its author has been trying to convey to long-suffering relatives and sex partners since he got his first forearm dream-catcher: that skin art is somehow significant, that this isn't just the dumbest fad to sweep a bored nation since the hula-hoop (with one big difference: devotees of the hula hoop aren't forced to carry it around on their saggy flesh for the rest of their lives). There've been miscellaneous stabs at such a work of literary justification, but they've mostly been every bit as tiresome and trivial as every tattoo ever created.There's an exception now to that dubious record. David Burr Gerrard's big, generous debut novel The Epiphany Machine is executed with such rhetorical care and such obvious earnest conviction on the part of its author that its presiding gimmick – tattoo-maker whose creations end up speaking oracular insights into the nature (and the future) of its customers – could be almost anything that's self-serving or pointlessly topical.Instead, Gerrard infuses the stylized opera of his proceedings with some humor and mercifully frequent touches of self-awareness. He could scarcely do otherwise, given the winning plot he's constructed: it's a New York world whose citizens have always been fascinated and haunted by a famous thing called the Epiphany Machine, a device presented to the public by the flamboyant, oddly charismatic figure of Adam Lyons and pivotal in the family life of the book's narrator, young Ventner Lowood, both of whose parents were tattooed by the Epiphany Machine, with slow-burn disastrous results that prompted them to warn Ventner against the machine the whole time he's growing up. The notoriety of the device is widespread, as is its allure: the tattoos it dispenses aren't chosen by the customers themselves but rather, through some mysterious process, seemingly chosen by the machine itself (or by Lyons – we're told late in the book that the two are essentially the same). These tattoos appear to speak basic, revelatory truths about their bearers – Ventner's reads DEPENDENT ON THE OPINION OF OTHERS, despite his lifelong high estimation of his own personal independence – which has drawn all kinds of people to the experience, including high-powered movers and shakers like real estate magnate Si Strauss, and as Ventner's researches into the operations of the Epiphany Machine reveal, this network of customers often proves important, especially given Lyons' sloppy business practices:

Indifferent to the concept of “inflation,” he never charged more than a hundred dollars for the use of the machine, even though there were many who would have paid thousands, and he never refused service to anyone who did not pay. But most people wanted to give him money before he put a needle in their arm; most people wanted it to feel at least a little like a business transaction. How Adam evaded the illegality of tattooing remained a mystery to me, partially because tattooing had already been legalized by my first visit; I suspect it was largely due to the many high-ranking city officials who were rumored to have received tattoos and, of course, to the influence of Strauss.

Naturally, not everybody is pleased about the cult phenomenon of the Epiphany Machine. One group – the one you'd expect – is having none of the dictatorial mumbo-jumbo of the experience:

Most tattoo artists hate the epiphany machine, and for good reason. It's a cheap perversion of what we do. If Adam Lyons were peddling some kind of magic dance that healed your soul, don't you think choreographers would hate him? If he ran a magic barbershop, don't you think barbers would start daydreaming about what they'd do with their scissors if they could get him in their chair? Furthermore, the epiphany machine negates the most important aspect of tattooing choice. Real tattoos are a kind of marriage vow you make with your current self; you're saying that who you are is who you will always be and what you want is what you will always want.

If a passage like that feels like a genuine world-view dragged roughly through the gears of a high-powered MFA blender, it's not alone in The Epigraph Machine. All of Gerrard's characters sound like just that: characters rather than people. This would ordinarily spell a novel's doom, but the tone Gerrard employs in this remarkable book is of a piece with his outsized characters; the book is as much a modern fable as it is a work of social satire. And the fact that some pseudo-literate hipster in Bushwick has almost certainly already had DEPENDENT ON THE OPINION OF OTHERS tattoo'd on his forearm is hardly something we can blame on the novel. Not quite, anyway.