TaekwonGO is a new novel by Dr. Joseph Hurtgen that he considers to be his most important work, and indeed, it is a service to society. It is a postmodern critique of the commodification of life and death, the virtual and the real. It’s available on Amazon. Spoilers ahead.
The book takes place in Kentucky in the DisUnited States of America as seen through augmented reality, but it really takes place in the hyperreal, that is, the imitation world in which we live. It’s a world where symbols predominate over what they symbolize, where substitutes for reality take the place of reality. Imagine not being able to pay your rent because you spent too much money skinning your home in The Sims. That’s hyperreality, and that’s Hurtgen’s setting.
It’s no surprise then that Karate masters are turning to the augmented reality video game Tae-Kwon-GO to gain prestige and make a living by winning virtual tournaments, as their real-world skills are undervalued. All the honor and rules associated with the actual art have been cut down to the bare basics, much like how most American Yoga practitioners couldn’t name a single Hindu deity if their Atman depended on it. Identity is tied into this remaking of the real into the virtual, which is where the zombies come in as discussed later.
The digital world that players look into is a mirror into infinity. The game is holy, eternal…People don’t parse out a cultural identity by considering the meaning of a Warhol or Kandinsky. People see themselves in the non-spaces of the internet.
“People don’t even have to dream anymore. We do all the dream work for them.”
This is set against an absurdist backdrop where people get healthcare from fast-food companies, where weddings are held in carwashes, and where variables are overanalyzed that pertain to home vacuuming techniques right down to the impact of barometric pressure. It’s a world where Ronald McDonald is treated as a surrogate father and patron saint, serving up genetic code and LASIK surgery as easily as shakes and nuggets.
RoboRonald appeared in the skies, big red shoes dangling in the air. The RoboRonald hung onto grips fastened onto the undercarriage of a speedy golden arched shaped drone…”Did somebody say McDonald’s?” it said.
Nile is a young man who wants to win the Tae-Kwon-GO tournament so he can continue his bum lifestyle with his friend, Rikki. His father is an abusive alcoholic whose existence is always looming over him until he wins the tournament. When he finally has enough money to purchase a home and become financially stable, transforming himself from child to man, he finally ends up the same size as his father, prompting his father to challenge him to a fight. Discontent with a virtual contest, his father will not be replaced until he’s defeated in the real world. His father is the real world as Nile sees it, abusive and harsh, while Nile’s world is the virtual. As they battle, both collide, resulting in the death of his father as the real world fades away, leaving the virtual symbol without anything to symbolize. This is why he doesn’t react to his father’s death in any meaningful way (which also solidifies his position as a nihilist). The obsession with the tournament, then, is the final pushing of a whole generation to life in the hyperreal.
Sarah is a young girl who is a marketing genius, which she first uses to sell vape juice to kids, stealing what is needed to make it, and justifying it by believing society owes her.
After all, capitalism requires learning to exploit others. What you don’t do is sit around learning a new language or working through the finer points of political philosophy.
Despite her intelligence, the book labels her a fool by referencing the homonym Sirrah. One day, officers ignore her illicit activities while they beat an African American.
I was white after all, and I was selling vape juice to mostly white kids in school. To the average American, that’s just not even in the same category as an African American selling untaxed cigarettes to poor people on the streets.
Almost forty kids die because of this vape juice, but it’s handled nonchalantly, as the drug dealing is referred to as a self-styled eugenics program that worked a little too well. She was in the clear, as it was the kids’ choice to vape, and she had attached a Surgeon General’s warning to the juice. Here is the contradiction, where she puts full responsibility on the consumer for their actions, while spending copious time learning to manipulate their decision making. She even understands that kids don’t think about the future or the impact of their choices in my favorite line:
In childhood, you participate in the archetype of the eternal child.
Molly, Billy, John Muller-Wang, and others round out the cast. In the description of Wang we see his heritage is a simulacrum, where so many identities have emerged as for him to have no heritage,
Part Cherokee-Indian, part Egyptian, part Jewish, part Nigerian, part German, part Antarctican, part Australian, part Vietnamese, with gene mods to give him the hair of a young Robert Plant.
The characters are reasonably distinct, from Rikki’s pessimism, “Man, there’s no results. There’s just time moving forward, systems collapsing, and the bad ideas of previous centuries turning into today’s killing fields. History is the accident of human civilization.”
To Tanaka, who blurs the line between Zen master and A.I., boundless, requiring no body to hold its consciousness, no wealth, no teacher, no pain, simply deterritorialized control and disembodied intelligence.
Young people continually vape throughout the book (the word is used over 200 times), which is used to show their addictive, zoned-out mentalities. As society becomes more obsessed with the game, and vaping becomes more popular, zombies proliferate, with people earning points for killing them. Eventually, zombification is linked to vaping. They are thus zombified by their insatiable desires, including lust, and their disconnection from the main world is a response to the overwhelming stimuli of these desires, desires which are amplified through marketing that associates masculinity, risk taking, and sexuality with consumption.
People once focused on the task at hand…
now you could stay almost completely absent from the present moment, plug into something and never unplug.
The zombies are sluggish and stupid, a phenomenon that creeps up on society. They wear the finest J. Crew outfits available, thus they’re overwhelmed by zombie debt. They’re described as political refugees, free of values and philosophy. The following describes why the term political refugees is used:
The government is playing a decade’s old game of Jenga with its citizens, slowing pulling out the blocks but not stacking them back on the top. You’ve heard people say freedom isn’t free, but…freedom isn’t even real…
“Some of you dumbasses don’t know what the American Dream is or was. That’s good. The dream isn’t for you…We’re feedback loops of folly, attracted to the worst habits because they yield instant pleasure.”
The developers are trying to market Tae-Kwon-GO to make it more addictive than vaping and drugs, thus competing with drugs to wake the masses from the slumber of their self-obsession, but it soon encourages the behavior it’s trying to prevent.
“If we direct people to live well, they’ll trust us more, and we’ll collect more capital…Capital is just a measure of trust.”
Eventually, a treatment becomes available to cure zombies after an attack on a vaping corporation, though it is too pricy for the lower classes to afford. The connection between the attack, and the appearance of the treatment, is somewhat vague, and the treatment seems rather disconnected to the cultural significance of what the zombie signifies, as it’s just another pop-a-pill solution. Nevertheless, it’s implied that pain emerges as people withdraw, but so does reality, summed up by the following line.
Pain is reality breaking into the illusions that we put in place to forget who we are.
Tae-Kwon-GO is the map that creates the territory, the symbol that creates the symbolized. While no territory is complete without boundaries, Hurtgen’s absurdist style eradicates these borders, waking the reader from his or her dogmatic slumber. The book is a postmodern delight, satirical and witty, and a mirror into the farcicality of modern life. Check it out on Amazon!
Selected Novels, Stories, and Essays by Dr. Joseph Hurtgen:
The Archive Incarnate
Heart of Steel
Mutual Symbiosis, an interview with Gerry Canavan
Under the Influencer
No Virtue in Virtuality