Binder’s work recalls that of Brett Easton Ellis in that he can make an oversexed, overpaid, chauvinist protagonist dynamic and symbolic without bashing readers over the head with metaphor or apologetic subtext.
Matthew Binder’s The Absolved, an absurdist (or is it?) rendering of a near-future dystopia in which occupational human labor has been rendered almost entirely obsolete by machines, is not the kind of book one nestles into their easy chair with for a heartwarming fireside read. Its setting is bleak, its characters are assholes and the political future Binder imagines for America is a bit too close for comfort. However, there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had in the discomfort that The Absolved causes.
A worthy follow-up to Binder’s majestically nihilistic 2016 novel High in the Streets, The Absolved is set in 2036 and follows philandering oncologist Henri, who, unlike most Americans, still has a job. Most others are “absolved,” meaning that they receive a wage from the government because the role they performed is now fulfilled by machines. This fully-realized set-up is a marvel to behold, and through it Binder pieces together a world resembling Blade Runner’s, if Blade Runner had been filmed by Alexander Payne.
Henri is a gross human being, but that’s the point. Most dystopian tales are told through the perspective of a “have-not,” a member of an uprising that takes down the oppressive regime. Binder creatively and convincingly tells his story from the point of view of a “have.” And the thing about being a “have,” something evidenced in the huge divisions in America right now, is that nearly all of their friends and acquaintances are also “haves.” This makes characters like Rachel (Henri’s wife), Serena (Henri’s conniving boss) and Taylor (Henri’s most recent lover) horrible in similar ways to Henri.
Rather than find virtuous counterparts for Henri and his cohorts, Binder makes the brave choice to show the other side as a different type of foolish. After losing his job, Henri – through some bar friends – gets swept into the orbit of the Luddites, a political group who oppose the rise of machines. In addition to spot-on naming, Binder seemingly observed the absurd political frenzy happening around us and has created a dire projection to accompany our current trajectory.
And this is no accident. Through Henri, Binder consistently reminds us of the horrors of our near-future and how willing we are to be distracted by the signs. At one point, Henri says, “Rather than bash Rachel over the head with the truth, I spoon-feed her bits of optimism.” In this metaphor, Henri is the climate-change denier, the investor in for-profit prisons, the guy who keeps reminding you that unemployment is way down. Henri is the perfect protagonist for our times because he thinks with his dick first and his wallet second and that’s only because people like him usually never have to worry about thinking with their wallets.
Things spin out of control towards the end of the novel, and the spiraling of The Absolved’s plot calls of Darren Aronofsky’s recent, greatly misunderstood film mother!. An already bonkers plot gets more bonkers, and if you’re desperate for profound character growth or a tidy conclusion you’ll be sorely disappointed. But that is because the point is the madness. American society has already spiraled dangerously out of control; Binder just gives the top a few more spins.
Binder’s work recalls that of Brett Easton Ellis in that he can make an oversexed, overpaid, chauvinist protagonist dynamic and symbolic without bashing readers over the head with metaphor or apologetic subtext. But while Ellis focuses on the now, Binder’s The Absolved has its eye firmly on the future, a future so near that it is already inevitable. Rather than frame his dystopia as a warning or a fantasy, the future of The Absolved is a frigid promise of what’s to come.