Adventures of the Artificial Woman
by Thomas Berger
Simon & Schuster ($22)
Thomas Berger's 23rd novel, Adventures of the Artificial Woman, centers on Phyllis, a robot constructed by Ellery Pierce, an animatronics engineer who tires of entanglements with organic women. Phyllis spurns her wifely role and works as a stripper and phone-sex operator before becoming an action-movie star and, climactically, running for president. In the hands of a Hot Young Debut Novelist (or, heaven forfend, a science-fiction hack) this would be a clench-worthy premise, but Berger, a lifelong mid-list author whose dust jacket bio boasts of a long-ago nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, forces the damn thing to work.
The novel breezes like a fairy tale, using economy and wit to move Phyllis quickly and effortlessly through various improbable situations. The only real misstep in the book is the farcical President Joe Sloan, a tone-deaf joke combining the lechery of Bill Clinton with the brainpower of Bush Junior. Every time this broad caricature pratfalls onto the page, it's the equivalent of a skit on a rap record: It's not only not funny, it's painful enough to make you question the artistic merit of the whole endeavor.
Major complaints with minor characters aside, the story becomes something powerful: At any given moment it can be satirizing gender roles, politics, celebrity culture, the idea of perfection, the sticky incest of sex and love, or its own flimsy pulp-science-fiction premise, often all on the same page. Satire is a weapon that more often than not blows up in the hands of the artist who is using it, but Berger writes exactly as a satirist should: He picks up an idea, turns it over in his palm, examines its facets and its possibilities, and hands it over to the reader before over-examination strips it of its luster, novelty, or charm.