If you’ve ever been on a mind-melting prescription drug binge, Matthew Roberson’s new novel Impotent might be nostalgic for you. But for the rest of us in docile society, this new work from Fiction Collective 2 lives up to the bizarre, psychedelic, experimental, and well-crafted reputation of the press’s many outer-rim publications. For example, Impotent opens with the recurring characters L and I, in which L stands for “Last Name, First Name, Middle Initial” and I stands for “Insured.” No character throughout the entire work has a clear name, mirroring the dehumanization that comes with the prescription drug industry.
I must be clear: there are no absolute characters in this book. However, do not fear; Roberson’s skill makes innovation much less difficult to navigate than a reader might imagine. And the lack of names or coherent individuals (and thus an excellent commentary) is only the tip of the experimental iceberg. Much like any prescription drug advertisement or commercial, a large amount of the novel’s content is found in the fine print of footnotes. Don’t let the relatively short length of this novel fool you: some pages are nearly filled with intermittently anecdotal or vastly important footnotes that either explain or seek to dilute further what is truly occurring in the patient/character’s mind.
Not only is Roberson in the brain of characters with chemically-induced insanity, he’s also in the mind of physicians, pharmacists, and drug company executives. Every bizarre aspect of this novel’s execution is meant to make the reader stop and think, “Why would he do this? It’s purposefully confusing.” Impotent is not at all a story to get lost in. You will not forget you’re reading an experimental work about prescription drugs. However, that’s the true aim of Roberson: to wake the sleeping masses to the elusive and manipulative tactics of the prescription drug industry.
Beyond the social commentary of the piece, there are real consequences present for the individuals within the novel. More drugs than I ever imagined are introduced, tried, and perhaps explained. Horrendous side effects or withdrawal symptoms such as weight loss/gain, irritability, depression, suicide, ulcers, cancer, and a disgusting array of birth defects are discussed or experienced in the novel, often hidden in the footnotes. A reader will learn much more than he or she ever desired about pills.
Finding a short passage is difficult for such a stream-of-consciousness work, but here are a few short lines to demonstrate how some of the chapters are structured:
For C [child] a nurse climbed on the table and pushed S’s [spouse] stomach.
The doctor used forceps.
M [male] hid in a corner.
It went no better with C.
While the actual events or plot of the novel might be difficult to summarize or even grasp, the message is not. Rather than lulling a reader into a story’s thrilling narrative, Roberson is attempting to open eyes to the narratives American society has already been lulled into. This work of fiction seeks to destroy the false safeties readers imagine in their healthcare system. I’d think twice before downing that Percocet. But don’t think twice about picking up this book.