A relentless search for happiness is at the core of Katie William’s novel, Tell the Machine Goodnight. Pearl is a technician for the Apricity Corporation, which specializes in a technology that analyzes a mouth swab specimen and provides personalized recommendations for greater contentment. Pearl is divorced from Elliot and living with her teenage son, Rhett. Pearl is fixated on Rhett’s happiness, which in turn causes anxiety and discontentment in Pearl’s own life. Each chapter focuses on a different individual from Pearl and Rhett’s world.
Relationships are certainly at the core of this story, as the happiness of each individual in this cast of characters is linked to one another. Rhett’s unhappiness is perceived by those around him. Rhett struggles with anorexia, which his parents and friends think is related to a trauma or a deep-rooted issue they must resolve. Pearl tests Rhett using the Apricity machine without his knowledge and gets a blank result. Convinced that she can guess Rhett’s needs through trial and error, Pearl encourages her son to engage in behaviors that are harmless but have aggressive undertones. Once Pearl perceives her son to be happier, or at least content, Pearl is able to shift her attention to her own happiness as well as that of others.
From Rhett’s perspective, we learn that his relationship with his father, Elliott, is improving and deepening. His father has remarried Val, the women Elliot cheated on Pearl with during their marriage. We also see how Val’s childhood continues to haunt her to this day and how her discontentment causes angst with Elliott as she decides she cannot be with him if she is unable to be happy with herself.
As Rhett goes off to college, Pearl’s attention further shifts away from her son. She finds a surrogate in a young actress named Calla. The actress has studio and management handlers controlling most aspects of her life. Pearl becomes a confidant to Calla and they form a deep friendship. Pearl also finds herself revisiting her relationship with Elliott, but both Elliott and Pearl recognize that neither is making the other happy.
In Tell the Machine Goodnight, technology plays an expected but not prominent role. While much of the action is focused around the Apricity machine, technology often takes a backseat, popping back in at random intervals to remind the reader that we are set in another time, arguably in the not so distant future. Aside from the Apricity Machine, we are told that homes have a “Home Management System” or HMS for short, which tracks movement in the house. We also know that people have tablets, not cell phones, but what that means exactly is not made clear. Late in the book, Calla and Pearl go into a privacy kiosk on the street. The walls of the kiosk form a scene below, above and around the person based on their preferences.
If there’s any criticism of this novel, it’s that the moments of technological world-building are so fleeting as to almost shock the reader when they appear in the text. Even with the Apricity machine at the core of the story, it’s easy to forget the parameters that make this fictional world so special. Nevertheless, the brief glimpses of fictional technological advances are some of the most fascinating moments in the book.
While technology is central to the narrative, it’s also important to note that this story does not primarily function as a warning about the future of technology, nor does it laud its utility. The technology in Williams’ work is not the sole driver in the pursuit of happiness, nor does it function as an impediment. Technology is a tool, like anything else, and comes with its own set of limitations. With its large heart, compelling cast of characters and frighteningly-not-far-from-reality technology, Tell the Machine Goodnight is a story that will compel you to keep reading, while also allowing you the space to meditate on the understanding that happiness looks different for everyone.