Along with the quest to find one’s purpose in life, the next biggest challenge a human can face is to figure out who they are and find a way to live with themselves. In David Burr Gerrard’s The Epiphany Machine, we see that struggle over and over as Venter Lowood deals with the fallout from several lifetimes of bad decisions and misunderstandings. At the heart of all these decisions and misunderstandings is the eponymous machine, which tattoos an epiphany on the forearm of anyone who uses it. The epiphanies reveal truths, prophecy fates, and generally disrupt everything. And yet, for a book about figuring things out, The Epiphany Machine is a very satisfying read because it answers so many of the questions posed in its pages.
Venter Lowood was always going to have a screwed up childhood. Both of his parents got epiphany tattoos from Adam Lyons, the owner of the epiphany machine, that informed them that they would be terrible parents. Venter grows up nursing both mother and father issues before he is talked into a job by Lyons himself. For a few years, Venter records the oral histories of people who get tattoos—which then appear between the chapters of the novel—before he is talked out of believing in the powers of the machine by a know-it-all roommate. Once Venter falls out of belief in the machine, he drifts through life following the pushes and prods of the people he meets. But then, what do you expect from someone whose tattoo reads “Dependent on the opinions of others”?
The Epiphany Machine is Venter’s story, but it’s also the story of a group of people whose lives were irreparably changed by the machine. We learn about what happened to John Lennon and Mark David Chapman—who in this world received identical tattoos—the two murderous Rebecca Harts and Venter’s own Rebecca, the curious powers of the machine for identifying (or not) criminals, and how a person’s curiosity about and obliviousness to themselves is universal. After a character receives an epiphany tattoo, there is a stomach-dropping moment when the tattoo is revealed. The character tries to make sense of it. Very rarely does a character feel peace when they work out what their epiphany means. More often there are tears, outrage, or drastic and deadly actions.
All of Venter’s chapters and the oral histories layer on top of one another, providing clues that explain what the epiphanies really meant and how they were so often misinterpreted by their owners. Characters appear in each other’s oral histories so that I got to see what happened to secondary and tertiary characters when an epiphany tattoo derailed their lives. I really enjoyed seeing it all come together by the end. I found this book deeply satisfying since so many loose ends were tied up by the time I got to the end of the book. Usually, I only feel this kind of satisfaction after reading Dickens, who leaves no questions unanswered (though Gerrard delivered answers in far fewer pages).
If nothing else, The Epiphany Machine shows that people are always mysteries until you really listen to them. Adam Lyons, a flawed, vulgar, possible guru, was a master at listening to people. Until we can do that for each other, even having an epiphany tattooed into someone’s forearm won’t help us work out who someone really is. More than that, to unriddle a person, we need to know their stories and the stories of people who appear in the story of the person we want to know. Really knowing someone is a probably impossible linear regression. Fittingly then, I found The Epiphany Machine to be an ouroboros of a novel—just like its characters—and I loved puzzling it out as I read.
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 18 July 2017.
Bibliotherapeutic Uses: Recommend this for readers who might need their own epiphany because they don’t see something about themselves that they need to see or, perhaps, to readers who spend a little too much time looking for themselves instead of looking at the world and people around them.