Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “The Relive Box” was originally published in the March 17, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
It may be me. I’ve always enjoyed Boyle’s stories, but I rarely find them excellent because I rarely find that they really provoke much from me. I feel the same way here with “The Relive Box.” The basic premise is that technology has somehow created a box, kind of like a videogame box, that you can sit in front of and relive whatever moment of your life you request. You are just an observer (“like Scrooge reliving his boarding-school agonies with the Ghost of Christmas Past at his elbow”), but it’s still quite the emotional ride. Now, I struggle to extract anything from this other than the most obvious (and well trod) avenues of thought: the “relive” box makes one unable to “live.”
I start with the negative because I do find it somewhat frustrating that the story goes only as far as we’d expect it to and escorts us to the same conclusions we hopefully were already cognizant of. There are many diversions that take us out of our present life, that ruins our relationships. Addiction in almost any form, whether to drugs, television, social media, etc. can irrevocably destroy relationships and our own potential in life. For me — and I’d like to find more here — that’s what we get.
But, that said, I still found it an enjoyable — and sad and genuinely emotional — read. Boyle is a fantastic story-teller.
He couches this examination in a torn family. Wes and his teenage daughter, Katie, were abandoned by Christine, wife and mother, some five years in the past — and the box is a terrible temptation. It’s easier to enter the past that to live in the present, as shown in this passage:
We didn’t have a Christmas tree that year, and neither of us [Wes and Katie] really cared all that much, I think — if we wanted to look at spangle-draped trees, we could relive holidays past, happier ones, or, in my case, I could go back to my childhood and relive my father’s whiskey in a glass and my mother’s long-suffering face blossoming over the greedy joy of her golden boy, her only child, tearing open his presents as a weak, bleached-out California sun haunted the windows and the turkey crackled in the oven.
Still, I kept waiting for the story to break new ground, to become an exploration story rather than a rather simple (though not simply-told) concept story.
“The Relive Box,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle, is puzzling, repetitive, and inconclusive. In parts I found it repellent, or maybe boring, I not sure which. It’s The Lost Weekend, but longer. And yet I recommend it, because I keep puzzling over it.
Wes lost his wife Christine over five years ago, and he has not gotten over it. Not only did Christine leave Wes, she also abandoned her daughter Katie. The old pattern of the man running out on his wife and family has been flipped. So you could call Christine the villain — except that she is not the real problem in this story.
In the aftermath of his unresolved mourning, Wes has become addicted to the relive box, a “five thousand dollar, second-generation Halcom X 1520 Relive Box with the In-Flesh Retinal Projection Stream”. The real trouble, he says, is that it has “altered forever the dynamic between my only child and me.”
This technology allows anyone to retrieve any moment of their lives. Wes lives in a narcotic dream: time and pain disappear, and he needs more and more of the box to get through the day. Life in the present hardly interests him. Despite the fact that he sees he is losing his daughter, he says this of his consciousness without the box:
I was depressed. And bored. So bored you could have drilled holes in the back of my head and taken core samples and I wouldn’t have known the difference.
He is arriving late to work with a “zombie stare,” and he has gotten two warnings. He pays almost no heed. He pursues his hours in the grip of the box, obsessively reliving his memories — the sex, the beauty, and the intensity. He is a man in mourning, and a man with no resources to deal with his mourning. He has chosen the box as a path of relief, and he is now oblivious to his responsibility for his daughter.
In his Page-Turner interview with Deborah Treisman (here), Boyle expands a little bit on the story and the interview is well worth reading. In answer to one very direct question from Treisman, he says:
Without tipping my hand — we must let the reader decide such things — I will say that an addiction does tend to close one’s eyes. And mind.
Here’s what woke me up in the middle of the night: while the story might remind you of our society’s addiction to electronic diversions, it reminds me of the potential selfishness of psychotherapy — the way a person can forget to live in the present and instead pursue the past (for years) to no good result. It’s the way Wes forgets the present that is so important to me in this story. In this story, T. C. Boyle has donned the robe of the prophet: he’s written one scary story and he means it to be.
It’s timely, though as well. On the same day I read this story, I also read this article in Pediatrics about parental iPhone use by Jenny S. Radesky, M.D. et al (here):
Forty caregivers used devices during their meal. The dominant theme salient to mobile device use and caregiver–child interaction was the degree of absorption in devices caregivers exhibited. Absorption was conceptualized as the extent to which primary engagement was with the device, rather than the child, and was determined by frequency, duration, and modality of device use; child response to caregiver use, which ranged from entertaining themselves to escalating bids for attention, and how caregivers managed this behavior; and separate versus shared use of devices. Highly absorbed caregivers often responded harshly to child misbehavior.
Boyle’s Jeremiad is right on the money. Wes says his addiction to the box has “forever altered” his relationship with his child. He forsook the present and with it, his child. It is the element of “forever” that Boyle is addressing. It is also the topic of “forever” that the Pediatrics article is addressing.
It’s hard to look in the mirror, but “The Relive Box” is worth the effort it takes to read it.