The Absolved by Matthew Binder
Black Spot Books, December 2018
290 pages / Amazon
Henri is a physician, and for a man whose job is to preserve human life, there doesn’t seem to be much of it around.
It is 2036, and America is advancing. Automation has made the world safer, more productive and more cost-efficient. It’s far from perfect, but the advancements in technology have led to severe unemployment and has birthed an American nihilism. From this, a radical fringe political party known as the Luddites is growing, seeking to save humanity from a machine-driven world.
What Matthew Binder presents in his new novel, The Absolved, is a world without work and purpose—a world which places little value on art and human nature. The result is a disturbing and darkly funny look at a future that we may already be living.
The novel begins with a car accident, a rare sight to see given that self-driving vehicles have drastically reduced the number of fatalities and drunk-driving incidents. “Just like that, a scourge of suburban American society was eradicated forever,” says Henri. This new law, put into effect six years before the events of The Absolved, is grounded by a practical solution: Let the technology remove human imperfection. As the novel progresses, we learn the cost of such advancements: free will and the desire to create.
Later, we learn Henri was an artist, a musician, but on the way to Coachella, his sense of poetry is replaced with pragmatism. Henri is not alone in his abandonment of an artistic life. In 2036, “To admit to writing poetry or dirtying your hands giving life to a sculpture, in fact, would invite a hurricane of ridicule and scorn.”
Binder even digs at himself a little bit when Tim Bradford, political leader of the Progressives, or the Regressives, or the Luddites, says to Henri, “Can you imagine anything as awful as a world full of painters, composers, and for God’s sake, novelists?” Retired is the usefulness of art, if it had any to begin with, and it is apparent in everyone from Henri’s mistress to his son, Julian, who appears unmoved by his father’s attempts to craft a wooden rocking chair. From listening to his own music to deciding the fate of a long-time coworker and friend, Henri is consistently embroiled in an existential battle, good and bad, free will and determinism, human and not human.
The world Binder crafts is crumbling under the weight of what is perceived to be progress. Why not call it that? Car accidents are down, the death rate is low, a universal basic income is allotted to those without employment. Humans, slowly and surely, will no longer be required to work. Where others might feel humans, once absolved of the burden of work, could pursue more noble ambitions, Binder is just not buying it. Without work, we become disillusioned and uprooted from what gives us purpose. Hopeless. Prime for a revolution to reclaim our humanity.
As strong politicians do, Bradford has observed the socio-political zeitgeist and has swept in to be its champion and savior, a voice for the forgotten. “The Absolved,” from where the book takes its name, refers to the colloquial term for those who are no longer required to work. To absolve, to set free from guilt or blame. These people have been made to believe they have committed some act of atrocity by simply being human, a sense of desperation from being made to believe the act of existence is ineffectual to the progress of this new America. These conditions lay the groundwork on which the Bradfords of the world to build their political empires, promising a better world by bringing it back to what it once was.
Inspired—perhaps fueled is a stronger word here—by the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Binder paints a world changing faster than its people can evolve with sympathy, something journalists and media often fail to do. It’s not just political ideologies these people are defending, it’s their humanity. Fear losing ground while progress turns and turns the wheels of change.
The faster the world moves forward, the more the characters in Binder’s novel cling to the past. Rachel, Henri’s wife, dresses like a Disney princess to reclaim some semblance of youth to keep together her marriage to a husband she knows is sharing himself with others. The family of a patient Henri is treating is killing their father by trying everything they can to keep him alive despite Henri’s insistence that they let him die pain free.
Henri’s escape from his monotonous, automated, married life is sex. Not with his wife, but with Taylor, a mistress with whom he is trying desperately hard not to fall in love. Deep down, he assures the readers of his story he is a good person. And there are times when we believe him: his humanity in finding the beauty in cemeteries, his admittance of guilt and shame when he embarks on another tryst, yet we’re constantly disappointed by his actions. You want to save the human animal? Well, this is it. This is imperfection. And what’s more imperfect than humans, driven by an indefinable spirit? A machine in its own right of which we believe ourselves to be the machinist. Henri’s final decision leaves us in a cold silence. This is imperfection.
The Absolved imagines a nuanced socio-political world and paints a disturbing portrait of human nature, not by imagining us at worst, but by looking at us as we are currently.
Gabriel Granillo: You wrote the manuscript for The Absolved while living in Budapest, and have mentioned that it was Anthony Bourdain who had inspired you to do so. What was it about Budapest that attracted you?
Matthew Binder: In the spring of 2016, I lived in Albuquerque, NM. I had recently published a novel called High in the Streets, and I knew that I wanted to write another. One night, I watched Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” episode on Budapest, and I thought the city looked like the type of place where I could do all right for myself. The next day at work, I found myself looking at a cost-of-living index comparing different international cities. To my surprise, Budapest was insanely cheap, somewhere between Warsaw, Poland and Jakarta, Indonesia.
By the end of the day, I had drafted my resignation letter and bought a one-way ticket. I landed in Budapest three weeks later with no plan other than the notion that I would write another book.
GG: This novel very much deals with American technological advancement and the kind of society that development could create. What was is it like writing about the US while living in Hungary? Do you feel you gained a different perspective having removed yourself from the culture of America?
MB: I wrote the first draft of The Absolved during the 2016 election season. Hungary was an interesting place to watch the horror show unfold because the Hungarians have so much experience with demagogic strongmen. Their president, Victor Orban, has rewritten the Hungarian constitution to essentially make himself a dictator. The courts, the press, etc.—it’s all under his direct control.
The campaign antics of 2016 inspired me to set the plot of my book against the 2036 election, in which a fringe populist candidate is running on a Luddite agenda, inciting the people to “rise up against the divine rights of machines.” So many of my friends have nothing but contempt for populists: Drumpf Voters, Brexiteers, Orban supporters—which I can understand, but often I find myself sympathizing with the populist sentiment. The world is changing faster than people can evolve, and that’s causing an immense number of casualties. A lot of folks are rooting for the system to crumble, even without any sort of proposed replacement. Resentment and frustration can be powerful motivators. Any sort of revolution, however, will almost certainly usher in something far worse for those who most need help.
GG: The Absolved talks about a lot, from advancing technology to life without work, but one of its most engaging aspects is its political landscape, the growing Luddite movement and politicians like Tim Bradford who appear to be the voice for the voiceless, the forgotten American. What were some of your inspirations when developing the socio-political landscape of The Absolved?
MB: It’s inevitable that eventually there’ll be too few jobs and that a large percentage of the country will be living off some form of government welfare, whether it’s Universal Basic Income, or something else yet to be invented. All my tech-geek friends advocate that once people are “absolved” of the burden of work, that they’ll then be free to pursue more noble ambitions than mere life-sustaining drudgery. But I don’t buy it. I think that without work to do, most people will simply fall victim to boredom and vice. It’s this impending sense of rootlessness, I believe, that will eventually drive people to some form of revolution.
GG: Another strong message of the novel is the devaluation of art, even digging at yourself when Bradford says, “Can you imagine anything as awful as a world full of painters, composers, and for God’s sake, novelists?” Why was that something you wanted to talk about?
MB: All culture will eventually be replaced by some form of pervasive anti-culture. That’s the logical conclusion of globalism, right? Due to technology, every place will become just like every other place. I think they call it the law of convergence. It comes under the guise of “progress,” but it’s just the flattening of culture. All we’ll be left with is pop culture.
We’re almost there already, aren’t we? It doesn’t matter if you’re in NY or Buenos Aires, you’re going to hear the same Ariana Grande song. Also, I think once Virtual Reality technology is mainstream, it’ll replace all other forms of entertainment and experience. Look how many people’s lives are already entirely consumed by video games and phones. Virtual Reality is going to be a thousand times worse within a few years.
GG: I think when people read The Absolved, it’s easy to get a sense of the ways in which, if we continue down our road of technological advancement as a replacement for human intentions, our society may end up—an artless, anxious and forever progressing nation. It may all feel a bit hopeless. But when you look at the future, is there anything you feel hopeful about?
MB: Every generation thinks that their problems are uniquely awful. An example of this rationale is that I’m convinced that social media has made us lonelier and more anxiety-ridden than any people before us. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, clearly life is much better today in many ways than it’s ever been before.
For instance, 123 million people died in war during the 20th century. It’s still early in the new century, but we’re doing much better in this regard. And, in past centuries, I can’t even fathom how many people died from what today are easily curable or preventable diseases. But, yes, climate change is an existential threat and there’s very little chance the economy-of-the-future will work for most people.
So, what am I hopeful for? I’m holding out just a modicum of hope that my instincts about the future aren’t prescient. After all, I’ve been wrong about so many things in life, so why not this?
GG: Moving away from the book, you also play music in a band called Bang Bang Jet Away. Tell me a little bit about the band and where that fits in with you being a novelist.
MB: I never had any aspirations to be an artist while growing up. I didn’t write, paint, play music, or anything of the sort. Instead, I was mad about playing sports. Unfortunately, I was a shrimp and didn’t make it very far. After graduating college, I became a surf bum in San Diego, and some of my surfer friends played music. I can’t recall exactly how it happened but eventually I became the singer of a band called Vinyl Radio. Soon, I became competent enough on guitar and started my own band called Hotel St. George. Like all good things, that too came to an end. Then, I quit playing music for several years and concentrated solely on writing fiction. After writing two novel manuscripts in succession, I started writing songs again.
My original plan was to record a solo album with the help of my friend Mike Kamoo. But the solo record turned into an ongoing collaboration called Bang Bang Jet Away. We just released our third record, and it’s called “Dzzs Bar,” named after my favorite hangout in Budapest. So far, Bang Bang Jet Away is just a recording project, but I would love for us to start playing shows before we get too old.
GG: Now that the novel is finished, what are you plans?
MB: I’m really trying to excel at my new job. Creatively, I’m working on a film project with a director pal of mine. It’s loosely based on one of the characters from The Absolved. I have no clue how the movie business works, so it’ll probably never see the light of day, but I’ll keep plugging away at it. I’m also making notes for another novel I hope to one day write. Lastly, I’m spending lots of time trying to get better at playing piano. Right now, that might be the thing I’m most interested in.
Gabriel Matthew Granillo is a graduate of Northern Arizona University with a BS in Journalism. His fiction and poetry have been published in both print and online journals including Vortex, Postcard Poems and Prose and Flash Fiction Magazine. He is a writer, journalist, photographer and poet living in Flagstaff, Arizona.