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Processed Cheese

Review

Processed Cheese

MisterMenu’s favorite drink is a GoldenRubySpikedPlatitude concocted from “[t]wenty-year old Maccloister, tomb vodka, volcanic-rock-filtered gin, aurora borealis nectar, dawn-harvested master melons, speckled tummerl eggs, and a generous sprinkling of gold flecks up top.” This recipe --- part fantasy, part science, part nonsense and totally intriguing --- offers just a glimpse into the weird world of PROCESSED CHEESE, Stephen Wright’s latest novel.

It may be our world in the future, but it reads more like a speculative version of the one we now inhabit --- one characterized by consumerism, selfish pursuits of pleasure, and an often-fatal near-sightedness. There is a tenderness in this book, but it struggles to surface, buried as it is by the characters who are willing to trade it for momentary delights. And it is in that struggle that Wright’s story shines. While PROCESSED CHEESE is an absurdist look at late-stage capitalism, it is also a funky romance with two compelling, if mostly enigmatic, central figures.

"Strange and funny, original and biting, cautionary and provocative, PROCESSED CHEESE has enough heart to make it compelling as well."

In Mammoth City, Graveyard and Ambience live humbly but are very much in love. When a bag of money falls seemingly from the sky, Graveyard is there to pick it up and take it home. It is enough money to change their lives in many ways. They can buy whatever they want, travel, and gift cash to friends and family. The money gets them drugs, clothes and gadgets galore. But it also gets them in deep and dangerous trouble. The giant bag of cash belongs to MisterMenu, a filthy rich corporate bigwig who, though the loss means little to his bottom line, wants it back on principle. He hires his sometimes mistress, DelicateSear, who brings on her sometimes lover, BlisterPac, to find Graveyard and retrieve what is left of the money.

Somehow Graveyard and Ambience are unfazed by BlisterPac’s threats. The money has brought out in them dormant sensations and responses that they are unwilling to give up. Even the feel and smell of the bills drive the married couple crazy with a giddy, sensual joy. The pressure BlisterPac exerts on them is menacing, yet still a little light-handed, and the two manage to wave it away for quite some time. But things take a turn for the worse --- first when he follows them to Graveyard’s hometown of Randomburg, and then again when a far more violent group shows up to finish what BlisterPac started.

Wright’s tale is set in a place somewhere between a comic book and a video game. It is quite bawdy, though only occasionally really graphic. For Graveyard and Ambience, and even more so for many other characters, drugs, sex, violence and materialism are all cut from the same cloth: the need for an immediate experience, one that elevates a person above the mundane, even temporarily. Mammoth City and the world in which it is situated is one of celebrity and wealth, product and power, where even names sound like commodities and the best jobs are ones that involve simply moving money around.

Cleverness abounds in PROCESSED CHEESE, and sometimes Wright may be overly dazzled by his own word play and overly committed to his style. Still, this satire, like Ambience’s marksmanship, hits the target more often than not. The bond between Graveyard and Ambience is never in doubt, and if not for their redeeming qualities --- even if obscured by their frenzied response to the cash windfall --- the novel would be much more bleak. Most of the characters here are lonely, and their drug-sex-stuff-filled lives only highlight their lack of control in a society where they are little more than consumers.

Strange and funny, original and biting, cautionary and provocative, PROCESSED CHEESE has enough heart to make it compelling as well.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 31, 2020

Processed Cheese
by Stephen Wright

  • Publication Date: January 21, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Humor, Satire
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316043370
  • ISBN-13: 9780316043373