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'Processed Cheese' Is Hard To Love — But Easy To Admire

In a fairer ⁠— or at least weirder ⁠— literary world, Stephen Wright would be as famous as Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo. He's has only written five novels since his debut in 1983 with Meditations in Green, but two of them, M31: A Family Romance and Going Native, are among the best of the last century. Wright is an unpredictable author with an unwavering commitment to the surreal; you get the feeling he couldn't write a straight story even if he wanted to. And it's pretty clear he's never wanted to.

Wright's latest book, Processed Cheese, is every bit as bizarre as its predecessors. It's a novel that's simultaneously angry and resigned, a darkly funny satire of American consumer culture in all its greed, lust and sloth — really, just name a deadly sin. Dizzying and bleak, it's Wright at his best.

The novel — set in a kind of Day-Glo alternate reality that looks a lot like present-day America — opens with the protagonist, Graveyard, walking down a street in fictional Mammoth City, looking for work but finding no luck. Suddenly, a canvas bag falls from the sky in front of him, and he's shocked when he finds out what's inside: money. Lots and lots of money. "Graveyard felt drunk," Wright writes. "Then he felt hellasmacked. Then he felt like he was going to have a heart attack or something."

He takes the bag home to his wife, Ambience, who needs to be convinced her husband didn't steal it. Once she's assured he came by it kind of honestly, they celebrate, first by having sex ("It was the best orgasm either of them had ever had"), then by buying everything: a "brand new 103" HootchieCootchie flat screen," snacks like "FruityPatooties" and "FudgieWudgiePudgies," and, for Graveyard, a bunch of new guns, including "the LastJudgement, its silver plated barrel engraved with lifelike drawings of couples engaged in sexual positions most people couldn't even begin to imagine." And no matter how much they spend, the bag never seems to get any lighter.

Not long after Graveyard's discovery, they start getting dunning letters from a law firm and semi-regular visits from a private eye, urging them not so gently to return the money to its rightful owner, MisterMenu, a wealthy, intensely jerky businessman whose wife tossed the cash-laden bag out of their 52nd-floor apartment in a fit of not-unjustified pique.

But Graveyard has no intention of parting with his newfound riches, and he and Ambience stonewall MisterMenu at every opportunity, in the meantime buying more things, doing drugs, having random, upsetting sexual encounters, and taking a vacation to a luxury hotel with "countless buffets of every type of fast food imaginable," where they're "encouraged to hook up with one another on whatever passing whim prevails." Something, of course, has to give. It does.

The world that Wright creates in 'Processed Cheese' is a tremendously unsettling one, largely because it's essentially indistinguishable from our own.

The world that Wright creates in Processed Cheese is a tremendously unsettling one, largely because it's essentially indistinguishable from our own. The details are heightened, to be sure: the characters' names (BlisterPac, DelicateSear, RoamingMinute, etc.) are reminiscent of Internet screen names, and some characters are educated at schools like "Munch&Crunch Elementary" and "the Saint Fiduciary of the Bent Nail Home for Nasty Little Punks." It's easy for authors who go down this road to get lost in their own whimsy, but Wright plays it with something like a straight face, which lends the novel a profoundly disturbing air.

And although Wright is clearly critical of American society's obsession with money, material goods and transactional sex, the book never turns didactic. The characters seem to recognize that they're slaves to consumer culture, even though they don't really try very hard to escape its grip. "There's no end to this," Graveyard reflects at one point. "There are no real boundaries anymore. We feel as much as we can bear until we can't bear it anymore and then we stop, and wherever we stop, however incredibly good that may feel, something inside us knows that there's more, there's always more."

'Processed Cheese' is brilliant, but it's at times difficult to read, and that's almost certainly by design.

Processed Cheese is brilliant, but it's at times difficult to read, and that's almost certainly by design. The world, in Wright's eyes, is fluorescent and lurid, with no easy escape from people desperate to cater to others' most base instincts. The novel, at times, is exhausting in its loudness — just like real life. Wright proves to be an eloquent and angry voice against the likely irreversible excesses of capitalism: "The legerdemain of money," he writes. "See it once, see it twice, see it forever. Works every time. Problems, like stubborn stains, go away justlikethat. Poof!"

It's a difficult novel to love, but an easy one to admire, and with it, Wright cements his reputation as one of the country's greatest living writers of fiction. An excoriating critique of what America has become, Processed Cheese is an exhausting, maddening and unforgettable book about how far we're willing to go to satisfy our greed. Everyone in this book is damaged, desperate and unhappy — but as Graveyard tells Ambience, "Happiness can't buy you money."

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.