[Review] - A Robot In The Garden, by Deborah Install


For the last little bit, I've been pretty freely calling The Martian, by Andy Weir, my favourite book of the year. This is only factually true because I read it for the first time in March, but the book itself was released in 2014. So, I am officially amending my statement to saying The Martian is my favourite book of last year. Because I recently finished A Robot In The Garden, by Deborah Install, which was published this year, and therefore requires no qualification. And is now my favourite of 2015. Which is kind of the point of this preamble.

Install's (an nicely ironic name for a book about a robot) debut novel is not the most original novel ever written. It borrows heavily from outside influences, and brings vividly to mind other works so often that it suggests more than just tonal influence. It also rides heavily on a standard battery of relationship drama and road trip cliches. However, all of this is excusable and forgivable for two reasons. First, because of these conditions, the book has an inherent comfort to it that allows you to slip into this semi-futuristic world without complication or hesitation. And two, in Tang, the titular robot, she has constructed such a focus of earnest emotion and adoration to immediately earn him a place beside the robotic greats of fiction. Tang stands beside Wall-e, Johnny Five and Marvin as robots that are immensely easy to fall in love with.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that won't be put into steerage.

The story begins, "There's a robot in the garden," and continues in utter Britishness from there. And it is irrefutably, irrepressibly British. For me, that is a huge draw and a great appeal. It is not soaked in British dialect or colloquialism, but the tone and sensibility betray its Albion origins even if it didn't begin and end in the English suburbs. Robot is the story of Ben, a thirty year old layabout, whose life was derailed by his parent's sudden death years before, and who has done nothing with his life since, much to the increasing annoyance of his wife, Amy. At first glance, these are cardboard shapes instead of characters. Ben is the same unshaved, unfocused, unambitious man-child that has experienced a renaissance of late. And Amy is a bitchy, career focused alpha wife who stops her foot at the slightest hint of fun. They are tropes more than defined individuals, and it makes the first few chapters a bit of a wade to get through. There is nothing unlikable about Ben, and nothing likable about Amy, and therefore nothing particularly interesting about either of them.

Install buries the lead a bit, because despite the first line being "There's a robot in the garden," we don't actually get to the robot in any substantial way for a least a chapter. It is present, but an non entity until it needs to be. The book is first person from Ben's perspective, so his relative ignorance of the robot at first does serve as a snap shot of his life: he misses the obvious, the important, and the obviously important in front of him. It's not so much a missed opportunity, because we get to know the robot quite well later on. But once you do, you look back at those early pages and wonder, "why were you waiting?" The narrative answer is, Ben's life falls pretty much completely apart, to the point where a ramshackle robot is the only thing Ben has to distract him from the rest of the shit. This too is an important lesson: once you focus on something, you can accomplish something.

If, by now, you are thinking, "geez, these morals seem awfully shallow and obvious," then you are absolutely right. There is nothing ground breaking here. Throughout the course of the book, Install covers all the same territory as a self help book, an Eat, Pray Love style travel-log, and a sci-fi social commentary. And it does it with about as much depth as a twelfth grade novel study. The lessons learned are ones that would also be covered in any number of children's story books: friends are important, make the best life you can, differences don't make people different. She means no ill with these faltering steps and Polly-Anna attitudes. In fact, she uses all of these potential negatives to construct a story that is remarkable comfortable. Slipping into the book, once it gets going, is as easy as slipping on a familiar pair of slippers. Because the books makes such use of old standards of the book writing world, it feels like home when you step inside. The innocence of the first time author is there, but never distracting. It helps that, while he plotting might overly rely on the cliche, her prose is strong and she has a voice. Her materials help you avoid noticing the construction.

That being said, and perhaps it is because so much is so cliched, but there are time when you read the book that flash floods of other books and movies that cover the same ground assault you. Chief among them is Hector and the Pursuit of Happiness, an equally cliched but far more shallow and tripe movie that came out last year starring Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike. Now, I don't know what the overlap between the release of that film and the writing of this novel were, and I am not accusing anyone of anything, but A Robot In The Garden bares an uncanny similarity to Hector and the Pursuit of Happiness, except it has a robot. And that robot saves it entirely. But that does not distract from the fact that Ben is Simon Pegg, and Amy is Rosamund Pike. their behaviors, their styles of speech, there is a distinct sense of copied mannerism. Inspiration is inspiration, and I do not fault an author from drawing on anything when building their world. But Install might have over-relied. there is a cowboy that shows up and dispenses sage wisdom in a bar at once point, and you could practically see Install watching The Big Lebowski as she wrote it, the stranger being Sam Elliot to the DNA.

A Robot in the Garden is one part Rain Man, one part ET, one part I, Robot. And the saving grace of the novel is Tang. Tang is the outlier in everything I've mentioned to this point. He is so utterly and completely realized, so unique as fictional robots go, and such a strong personality. Install mentions in her notes that she drew inspiration (the only time she admits it) from Gromit, but it is more than that. There are times in the text that she references his facial expressions changing with his mood, despite the fact that he has a static expression. It is a wonderful way of texualizing the phenomena of anthropomorphism. We do it all the time, see personality in the inanimate. The difference being, Tang is animate, he just can't express himself. And yet he does. Through the flailing of his robot pincer arms, to the child-like dangling of his feet when he sits in chairs, or the wide eyed wonder as he lays giddy, face pressed against the glass of a glass-bottom boat. Tang is everything that everyone else in the novel isn't, and he makes them better through his completeness. He grows (Ben has a complete arc, as does Amy in a much more forced way), he learns, he comes to understand and to terms.

Tang is a rusty, broken heap of a retro robot standing four feet tall, and held together with gaffer tape that he keeps picking at. He lives in a world of sleek, iPhone cyborgs that carry out very specific tasks and go mental if asked to do anything else. Tang loathes cyborgs in a way that children loath brussel sprouts. Because Tang fulfills no specific tasks. Tang just is, and the first two thirds of the book are dedicated to his mystery. Where he came from, and how to fix him is what carries Ben from Britain, to America and beyond, as he follows a trail (which isn't a trail) of clues (which aren't clues) around the world. This trail ends at the second act, leaving a lot of book unexpectedly left after the confrontation with the villain, who again reads pretty exactly as if played by Robert Redford and who is an antagonist that the novel doesn't really need. Tang's origins are revealed in a frustratingly straightforward way that reaffirms tang's child-like natural, and renders most to the plot needless. The final third of the book is a bizarre combination. Wonderfully, it sees Ben and Tang living together, learning from one another and being adorable. But it also features a forced conclusion to Amy's storyline that doesn't feel true to the rest of the novel's established events, and smacks of both contrivance and needing a happy ending.

Personally, I would have been happy with a character focused novel where Ben and Tang discovers themselves on a great adventure, then settle back into everyday life and try to find where each other fits in a mundane world. Do without oppressive regimes and domestic squabbles. And yet despite all these complaints, I still read the entire book through with a goofy grin on my face, a happy flutter in my heart, and an irrepressible need to see what happens next. This was a book that I kept reading, well into the deep dark of the night, when I knew I had to get up the next morning for work. There was a charm, despite all the missteps. And, it is impossible not to fall completely in love with Tang. He grabs hold of your leg and crawls directly into your heart. Install too readily and perfectly captured the best aspects of seeing the world reveal itself to an innocent. When Tang is scared, you are scared for him. When he is ill, you bite your lip. And when he is happy, he infects you in the same way. I have no doubt that Install's narrative style and plotting will better with future works, but she already has the chops for developing character. And that is enough to make this my favourite book of the year.

Now, they just need to manage not to adapt it to film. We don't need that.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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