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Topiary--A Novel Paperback – October 10, 2009

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Editorial Reviews


A bold, dark, difficult vision, Topiary might be best described as Thomas Pynchon doing George Orwell while channeling Diane Ackerman.

Upon tripping over the word "panopticon"--a sly nod to Foucault?--in Engel's new book, readers might be forgiven for moving on, hearing in the author's academic jargon the murmurs of an unemployed graduate studenttrying to find a venue for his condescension. They would be wrong to do so, however, for while the book is learned, hyper-complex and full of stylistic acrobatics, it is also quite good. Little needs to be said, or can be said of the plot of what the author has dubbed a "modular novel." Engel sets readers down in a dystopic metropolis called "The City." (Engel capitalizes all the menacing institutional forces in the novel; we also have "The Nation," "The Corporation," "The Database" and "The Network.") At the book's center--if readers can find it--is Plantman, a former ad exec who flees the corporate world to work for Topiary Techniques, a company devoted to the care of indoor plants primarily housed in office buildings. Plantman's journey through the labyrinthine "City" is as difficult to describe as it is engrossing, and its twists and turns are best left to readers,though they must exercise patience. Engel's prose style is indeed demanding, recalling the experimentalism of postmodern literary tricksters like Pynchon or, later, David Foster Wallace. He fires his prose in machine-gun bursts that occasionally--and sometimes detrimentally--resemble text messages in their ragged brevity. At other times, while traveling through the more arid portions of his prose, readers will wish for a descriptive oasis. But Engel pushes on, painting his frightening landscape with obsessive grace, and readers will be compelled to follow.

Grim and experimental, but worth the effort. --Kirkus Discoveries

Not all writers are artists, but with Topiary Adam Engel shows himself to be a true artist. He compellingly plays with form, meaning, the sounds and shapes of words, story, character, politics, morals, ethics, philosophy. This book is a large leap forward not only for philosophy but for the literary arts. Thank you Adam Engel. --Derrick Jensen, author of A LANGUAGE OLDER THAN WORDS, THE CULTURE OF MAKE BELIEVE and ENDGAME

Topiary's Plantman incarnates in the City of the Near Future as Keeper & Protector of office greenery. He waters and trims and tries to sustain the sad life of "corporate flora" in the cubicles of tall huge busy dead buildings where only money lives. As in the Grail myths, the whole planet is Wasteland. On a dying planet, the pure knight searches for the Holy Grail. Who is The Missing Girl. (Grail and Grrrl throughout Western literature are variants of the same thing.)

Plantman, of his nature, in daily life and work encounters "trials" which are the collisions of a death-binge culture with creatures born alive into manufactured terms. Each character and situation is condensed saga, a handful of seeds. Plantman's terrain compacts the modern techno-dilemma in its recurrent mythic guise: The University of Vigor & Ambition, The Hall of Hoaxes with its resident Giant Hoax, The Indian Museum, The Museum of Women. Within the city's cynical parody of "culture" real agony occurs: the Possessed Man (a brilliant update of Thoreau's Desperate Multitude) is "neither good nor bad. He is terrified, alone - even among friends and family. Though he works to support his family he is not sure, exactly, what he does. According to his Job Description he `Administrates Creative Product Strategies.'" Lucky to have a job, doomed to Kafka's prediction. "He's reached his final rung. He knows he hasn't the energy to kill, the visceral burning to climb further. The remaining energies of life will be directed toward hanging to the rung on which his life precariously clings. Long, grim struggle to maintain his place on the limitless ladder to the sky. He can barely see the people at bottom, but he would need a powerful telescope indeed to even glimpse Movers and Shakers at the Top."

Before incarnating as Savior of Greenery, Plantman worked at the Ad Agency: "What was I doing, me and my false words? Degenerative lingua-phobia. Overexposure to corrupt grammar of `the sell.'" In his journey around the vertical icecube trays composing the high- rise city, Plantman is more or less androgynous, able to sense the doomed bio-romantic stasis of females once twined naked, with him, under a rhythmic Moon. Female office workers, the Datists, work for a world of male world managers: "Computers sucked girl juice dry from cunt to womb. Terrible brightness of the afternoon (or was it night?) under florescent suns. What is a girl's desire in the world of men?"

His empathy with every life form & human type - like his plants, struggling to stay alive in synthetic space & mechanic time - is real, but helpless. Plantman's "condition" - terminal anemia - signals the energy fluid of Life itself dying from the biophobia of the World. A world in which The Death Squad, a "weekly documentary for the war-juiced public," is the favorite hit network tv "live-action series."

Like every lifeform on the overmanufactured planet, Plantman is alone with his mythic destiny. Carrying a bag of fading cells, he must look for The Missing Girl in this classic scenario: in search of the Only Real Magic which can refresh & refertilize Earth, he also seeks his own resurrection from impending Death.

f you pass Plantman on the highway, with that bag of seeds over his shoulder, trudging drunkenly Westward - that's the Direction he's going.

Always and forever. -- Barbara Mor --Dissident Voice, October 13, 2008 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Topiary is amongst the the boldest, most ambitious fiction since the irrecovable loss of Acker, Burroughs and Gaddis in the late 90s. Engel cuts with Kafka's knife -- and he cuts deep. TOPIARY ranks, in this reviewer's opinion, with Clifford's CASTLING, and Chapman's STET, as one of the great works of the "new" century. Like Kafka's AMERIKA, or DeLillo's AMERICANA, Engel takes the reader on a hilarious, mesmerizing journey in which every sentence either stings or soothes. Plantman is an Everyman of our contemporary era, and Topiary is a major work. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 372 pages
  • Publisher: THE OLIVER ARTS AND OPEN PRESS (October 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0981989136
  • ISBN-13: 978-0981989136
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #7,724,235 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Randall M. Tillotson on December 26, 2009
Format: Paperback
Engel's book possessed me like a tractor beam. I couldn't put it down. If jazz can be written, Engel has done it. Each chapter was like a unique solo at times, but in the end, all the parts fit together perfectly.

His chapter "The Possessed" was absolutely the best depiction of modern work life I've ever read. Anyone who works in a cubicle can see themselves in that chapter, and easily say, "Oh, my god, that's me!!"

And the idea of Plant Man was totally unique. These are the kinds of persons that used to come into the office at work, silently tending the plants, and disappearing. I'll never think about these attendants as just silent robots again.

"The Parlor Radicals" was wonderful. He uses furniture and appliances that speak a common language, and play the roles of good and supremely evil characters in our society. Anyone who has yelled at their television will love this chapter.

This book's style was totally unique, and produced one of the best mirrors of our society that I've read in years. I hope Engel has more on the way.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Jodi VINE VOICE on January 25, 2009
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The author describes this book as a "modular novel". For those who might be wondering what a modular novel is, please allow me to clarify:

Modular novel - use of verbs and punctuation are optional and highly discouraged.

It absolutely amazes me that somebody can fill up 329 pages of ramblings, with only 9 verbs total among those pages. It's enough to make me wish I were illiterate. This book beat the snot out of my motivation, and it took me nearly 3 weeks to finish the darn thing. Now I need a drink.

I still have no idea what this book is about. It was an absolute chore to read and I couldn't make heads or tails of what was happening. I try to find something positive in every book I read, even the books I hate. I have tried and tried, but I can't think of anything positive to say about this book. It is complicated and confusing and in serious need of an editor. A couple of verbs scattered here and there with some prepositions in between might help make the language more understandable. Proper punctuation is not illegal, either. I realize this is supposed to be some sort of artistic prose, some nouveau creativity, but it just doesn't have the linguistic capability to be considered artistic. I'm not even sure this book has the linguistic capability to be considered English.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By J. Finkel TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 21, 2009
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Topiary is a very different kind of book from what I would normally choose to read. The writing style centers around a free form poetry but occassionally wanders into or mixes with legitimate sentences. I like to believe I am opened minded enough to appreciate virtuous writing regardless of my familiarity or comfort with its presentation. Whether or not this is the case, I am certain that I did not enjoy reading Topiary.

Primarily this is my main grievance with the book. It's the length of a real novel, but has very little plot. There just isn't much going on. I'm not saying a good work of fiction NEEDS a good plot, but in this case, it would have helped. And I really did have my hopes up, as one of my closest friends has worked in the same obscure job as the main character for the last several years.

Topiary is set in a dystopian society that could easily be modern day USA as seen by a juvenile paranoid-delusional off their meds. There are also running themes of obsession/contempt with sexuality and violence. A dystopian setting can really be a great canvas to work with, but not in this case. I felt the setting (and characters) were unconvincing and shallow. Topiary is less a sharp jab at all the follies of our society than a simplistic, twisted, boring dream.

Topiary, could be a character study, I guess...but the characters are poorly developed (if at all), even the main character - Plantman. Plantman shows little emotion and only superficially interacts with other characters. Plus, plantman is extremely boring, like most of the characters.

The writing style is not for me. However, I recognize parts of the book that are written with grace, wit and even charm.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Brian J. Greene VINE VOICE on January 6, 2009
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This novel is an experimental, non-linear work, so it makes little sense to discuss its "plot." The book reads something like a combination of William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, and George Orwell. It is basically "about" a guy who was once an arty student who became a failed advertising man before getting work as a caretaker of plants. The company he works for, Topiary Techniques, is like the Starbucks of horticultural care, with its overeducated staff and aggressively optimistic front. Meanwhile, The Nation is at war, and it's all there for everyone to see at all times, a bit of nightmarish hyper-reality that brings to mind Orwell's 1984. Mostly the book is just funny, though, and thought-provoking. It contains a collection of loosely-connected, dream-like snippets. You never know if the next section you read will have anything to do with the one you just read, you never know if the characters and elements of a segment you read and enjoy will come back at any point . . . You just to take in each little section for what it is, and get out of it what you can. The experience of reading it is quite similar to what you get with Burroughs's' cut-up novels, like The Naked Lunch, Soft Machine, Cities of the Red Night, etc. Overall, the book is not strong enough for Engel to be on a par with Burroughs, but it is intriguing enough to where I'd want to read more by him.
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