Off the Grid on $168,548: Jonathan Dee’s “Sugar Street”

“You must make it smaller, scale it down:  maybe that was the answer all along.” – Sugar Street, by Jonathan Dee

 In Jonathan Dee’s eerie new novel, Sugar Street, the fanatical unnamed narrator plots his disappearance off the grid. On his drive across the country to a city where no one will look for him, he dares not stop at a motel to sleep and shower, because his picture would be captured on security cameras. He carries all his worldly goods, $168,548, in an envelope – a sum of money which is not entirely his, we gather. Nonetheless, he plans to finance the rest of his life with this cash. 

Written in exquisite vignettes, philosophical observations, and  sharply-drawn scenes, this novel has a Dostoevskian vibe. As I read, I thought of Notes from the Underground, whose alienated narrator rants against society – from the safety of his room. In the beginning, Dee’s narrator is calmer than Dostoevsksy’s, but  he is incensed that human lives have been reduced to data on the internet.  He has dropped out of society to live a more human, even a more humane, life.  And yet he hints that he is not quite legit.

I’ve done some harm.  I’ve hurt people. And I’ve done it while priding myself on being kind, unselfish, a good person, which only makes it worse, because it suggests how little self-awareness I have, how unreal my will is, how pointless my intent.  I left it worse than I found it. I’ve committed some crimes.

The novel is partly didactic, telling us step-by-step how to drop out of the electronic surveillance culture.  He puts a  drill through the motherboard of his computer and runs over his phone with the car, disables Siri and buys paper maps.  He avoids highways because of security cameras, ditto corporate gas stations, ditto convenience stores, ditto chain stores and chain motels.  He shreds his credit cards and drivers’ license.  He does not buy a TV, because the signal goes two ways.  And he ditches his car – because the VIN numbers on the steering wheel and motor identify the owner.

His frightening treatise on facial recognition technology makes one want to go off-grid.

… in China, police officers are issued special eyeglasses capable of locating designated individuals in crowds.  One man was pinpointed – and arrested – at a pop concert with sixty thousand fans in attendance.  The software’s algorithms run not just on what you look like but what you used to look like.  On what you will look like.  People love to talk about how dangerously inaccurate it is.  But which is scarier, really?  When it makes a mistake, or when it doesn’t?

Yet this novel is more than an off-the-grid manual. After the narrator rents a dumpy room on run-down Sugar Street, he does have occasional human interactions and human concerns.  He hangs out at a tumbledown neighborhood public library where a Black man befriends him:  since the narrator cannot use the computer without an ID, the Black man offers his.  At one point, the narrator’s new friend lends/buys him a saw, so he can cut two branches fallen from a tree in his landlady’s yard to the precise size required for garbage pick-up. And then the puritanical librarian gets rid of most of the chairs, because she doesn’t want to provide hospitality for rumpled middle-aged and older men.

At home, the narrator has explosive interactions with  his angry, mean-spirited, thirty-something landlady, who treats him with suspicion, though it is she who is caught illicitly in his room one day.  He pays the rent six months in advance so she will leave him alone.   And then she disappears for a long time.  He pays her electric bill when they threaten to cut it off.  When she finally returns, looking ill and weak, she offers no explanation.  It is none of his business.

This is also a novel about the refugee population in a troubled city: sometimes their houses are torched; sometimes they are deported.  At one point, the narrator becomes a leftist Boo Radley who rescues a refugee kid’s notebook from the sidewalk by propping it on a branch where she will find it on her way to school.  He does care about the refugees’ problems, but when he tries to volunteer at a refugee center an ID is required. 

And then, out of loneliness and boredom, he makes some bad decisions.  Things spiral out of control.

A fascinating look at the crisis of trying to live humanely (and humanly) off the grid in American cities in the 21st century.


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