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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "The Relive Box" by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Issue: March 17, 2014

I'm not familiar enough with T. C. Boyle to understand why he sometimes writes as "T. Coraghessan Boyle," and I'm not even sure there is any pattern to it. All I know is, I like what I've read of his so far, including "Night of the Satellite" (GCB, 4/16/2013) and "Los Gigantes." He has a sort of jaded, 90s ironic, tongue-in-cheek style, creating slightly skewed, modern day worlds with a bent toward the tragicomic, dysfunctional characters of George Saunders. But he also seems to like to project forward into a not so distant and not-so-completely-implausible future, as in "Los Gigantes" and the story at hand, "The Relive Box."

The Halcom X1520 model "Relive Box" is a device much like a video game console with which people can re-live any of their past memories, all while sitting on the couches in their own homes. One merely turns on the Relive Box, programs into it a specific date, and the box projects your memories right back into your mind, via retinal projection (or something).

The main character, Wes, is a single father of a teenager, Katie. Wes' wife abandoned him and their daughter to live with a Chinese filmmaker. Subsequently, in his despair and frustration, Wes has become obsessed with his Relive Box. He stays up late at night using it, so much so that he's often groggy and ineffective at work and has now garnered two "warnings" from his employers. Even his daughter Katie has become addicted to the machine, using all the force of her teenage ire to wheedle a few extra minutes on the device here or there. Through the Relive Box, we see some of Wes' formative experiences with women, as he relives his only other significant relationship before his wife, and other various memories, as Wes sinks further and further into his Relive Box addiction. Finally, his daughter "wakes" him from one particular session, and he realizes how far gone he is.

On one level, this is just one of those "technology is destroying society" stories, sort of a "Gee whizz, remember the good old days before electricity," kind of thing...(a sentiment which I'm not completely deaf to, by the way). Not only is the Relive Box causing Wes' life to unravel, but it's also turned his daughter into an addict. Wes wonders why his daughter doesn't seem interested in normal teenager things like "texting her friends," or hanging out at the mall, only to realize that he also has no social life anymore and his co-workers are succumbing to Relive Box addiction. It's as though the alienation wrought by the internet and cell phones weren't enough; the Relive Box draws people even further away from each other by drawing them further into themselves and their memories.

There, I think, is the second and more interesting plane of understanding for this story. It's not simply about 21st century technology disrupting the 20th century-style fabric of life; it's about the limitations of looking to the past for answers. Wes looks to his relationship with his first serious girlfriend, Lisa, in order to help him understand why his relationship with his wife, Christine, deteriorated. However, he gains no new knowledge. All he does is indulge his lingering sexual fantasies for Lisa and drag himself back through the muck some unpleasant memories of his 20-something self. And that's just the thing: he was a different person back in those days when he was dating Lisa (and Lisa literally a different person than his ex-wife), and therefore can gain no insight into why his marriage with Christine broke up. Furthermore, his addiction for living in the past is destroying his current relationship with his daughter and preventing him from growing into someone new's the kicker...preventing him from creating NEW memories worth reliving! In that way, the Relive Box halts and even kills the very process which it is designed to celebrate; the process of living one's life and having worthwhile experiences.

The moral: Get out of your Facebook/cellphone/Internet cocoon and talk to someone face to face, have a relationship, make some mistakes...but DO SOMETHING. I can get behind that.


Jan Hunt said…
Excellent essay. It's just as readable and thought-provoking as the story it reviews!
Anonymous said…
Quite possibly the best short-story analysis I have ever read.

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