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The Program

by Hal Niedzviecki

Hal Niedzviecki: founding editor of Broken Pencil magazine, zine culture elder statesman, literary novelist, pop-culture analyst. Is it possible that the 34-year-old Niedzviecki (who in the past has collaborated with Steve Mann, the eccentric U of T technology guru) is some sort of cyborg? One might think so, except that the flaws of his new novel mark him as all too human.

Maury Stern is a successful advertising guru who once wrote a best-selling self-help book. But he has become obsessed by a devastating family mystery: what did his brother Cal do to Maury’s young son Danny when the two were left alone together one fateful night?

Flash forward a few more years and Cal has vanished, as meanwhile Maury takes Danny on a camping trip only to have his 10-year-old son run off into the woods and somehow knock himself into a temporary coma. Racked with guilt, Maury inexplicably decides that pulling his own disappearing act would be the best way to make amends. Danny, after the doctors wake him, has an even better plan for dealing with trauma: he will design a computer program that somehow merges his mind with the Internet, thus creating a new and less painful reality for himself. Or something like that.

To be fair, this largely confused novel does have several genuine moments of clarity. Satirical sections on the advertising business, while not entirely original, are well executed. Niedzviecki’s strong depiction of Cal’s breakdown is simultaneously gut-wrenching and darkly funny. Throughout the novel, the author teases us with an intriguingly unorthodox comparison of ideas about technology, wilderness, and the self.

The problem is that these various flashes aren’t sufficiently integrated into a coherent, fully realized work. Individual scenes don’t coalesce into anything more than the murkiest (and most improbable) of overall plots. Individual ideas are never elaborated into fully actualized arguments. The Program is a bit like a beta version of some clever new piece of software – while innovative, it’s full of bugs and constantly crashing.

Every writer has his or her own rhythms, but the point seems too obvious not to make: eight books in eight years is a lot of books. Niedzviecki professes an interest in nature – maybe he should slow down and smell the flowers.