The Pickle Index app — one way to experience Eli Horowitz's newest novel and multimedia project — opens with what looks like an ad for an Apple product. Millennials gather to feast together in a stylishly decorated home, laughing and communing silently behind a veneer of electric pop. They lay down newspaper; they tuck napkins into their shirt collars. But instead of plates of steamed seafood or roasted vegetables, a tray is overturned before them, and there are ... pickles. Huge, meaty dill pickles. The hip young friends joyfully pick up the pickles. (Sorry.) They gnaw on them with relish. (Sorry, again.) They laugh and laugh and smile and laugh through pulpy mouthfuls of masticated cucumber. By then, it's less of a commercial for an iPhone and more of a surreal illustration of the kind of life you could have in a world where everything is pickled and pickles are everything.
But to the story, that is to say, the actual narrative of The Pickle Index in all of its iterations: In an oppressive autocracy, Zloty Kornblatt and his sad little circus couldn't get a laugh if they tried. But then one fateful night — through a series of comical mishaps, and without trying at all — he is unintentionally funny, and accidentally impersonates The Prime Mother of their government, Madam J, and her beloved pet octopus Simeon. Zloty brings down the house, but unfortunately, there's an informer in the audience. The next day, he is gone, taken in the night, leaving his inept, ragtag group of performers to head to the capital city to find him and bring him home.
This story, told in alternating chapters, is narrated by Flora, Zloty's assistant, and is ostensibly being written down by her and fed into The Pickle Index, the city's cumbersome cucumber (Forgive me!) network, full of briny and fermented recipes for citizens to make in their own homes. The chapters between Flora's narration take the form of columns from the local newspaper, The Daily Scrutinizer. Zloty has been taken, Hank Hamper writes, because of his subversion. But Hank's absurd allegations have a sinister edge: Zloty is in danger of perfunctory trial and a seemingly infinite menu of outlandish execution methods.
There are three ways to experience The Pickle Index, all of which can stand on their own. The first is its paperback novel, which is entirely text aside from small black-and-white woodcuts. The second is a hardcover, two-book set. These books are gorgeously illustrated by Ian Huebert, but they stand out for other reasons. The two books are not simply the paperback with color; instead, they are the two types of chapters separated: the "News" (from The Daily Scrutinizer) and the "Snacks" (Flora's more or less straightforward narration of the story). These books can be read separately, but the illustrations in each encourage the reader to read the books back and forth, or at the very least turn and twirl the illustrations to see how they connect with, compliment, or contradict each other.
As for the app, it is different thing entirely, while still being more of the same. Within the app are the two sections yet again: the newspaper, and Flora's chapters nestled amongst the Index. Once the reader has read the necessarily elements, they can progress through the story in real time, or with the narrative accelerated. Additionally, the app has one-off jokes and minor side plots — including two soldiers trapped in a submarine together, squabbling in the Q&A section. You, the reader, are also integrated into this frustrating world, and have to (among other things) manipulate the Index's deliberately clunky interface.
Eli Horowitz is known for his multi-platform, interactive literary collaborations, including The Silent History, which tracked a fictional epidemic of muteness across time and distance, and was a print novel and an app. He has an active interest in form. And in many ways, The Pickle Index is a delight — the narration is laugh-out-loud funny. There is a certain pathos, though, that doesn't quite come through; this is a project with slightly more style than substance.
In an ideal world, each form wouldn't have just been its own experience; together, they should have generated new questions, something greater than the sum of their parts. But for readers who are interested in the potential energy of form, or Horowitz's oeuvre, The Pickle Index is a fun, strange romp through (last one, promise) an absurdly cured world.
Carmen Maria Machado has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review and AGNI, among other publications.