Review: The Steve Machine

A novel that toys with our notion of reality.

The Steve Machine is a novel that toys with our notion of reality. A kind of fictionalized biography of Toronto video artist Steve Reinke, it is a faithful meditation on his art that nevertheless skews some of the key details of his life (in particular, the fictional “Steve” is here diagnosed as HIV positive, which the real-life Reinke is not). Other characters, such as a shambling orgy enthusiast (“the most undiscriminating man I’d ever met”), are also named for non-fictional counterparts — in this case, fellow fringe filmmaker Wrik Mead — though the degree of realism is equally questionable. The living, breathing Reinke is even called on to perpetuate the ruse. “I love this book,” he enthuses in a jacket blurb, “though I prefer the original title, Steve Reinke, the Greatest Video Artist in the World.”

Ostensibly, the debut novel from filmmaker and critic Mike Hoolboom (who has been living with HIV for close to two decades) is the story of how Auden, himself recently diagnosed, copes with the disease by latching onto Reinke in an intimate, mostly platonic love affair. As the two nurse each other through stages of the disease, Reinke divulges his life story in a series of elliptical anecdotes — part confessional, part portrait of the boundary-pushing artist as a young man. Auden is literally taken over by Reinke’s tale, possessed by the “grain of [his] magnificent voice,” which he compares to the subvocal tone one hears while reading. The book, meanwhile, acts as “a machine for producing this voice,” a sly nod to Reinke’s own highly conceptual work.

Toward the end of the book, Reinke eulogizes an artist who produced work of such beauty that it filled “its viewers with a perfect and individual happiness.” “[She] was the only true genius I ever met,” he says. “Unfortunately her chosen vocation was video art, which ensured that no one but her closest friends would ever understand her.” The Steve Machine possesses the same urgency. Like Reinke’s ambitious project The Hundred Videos, it twists reality and fantasy, memory and desire, to create an intuitive hybrid in which art transcends individual identity.

Stuart Woods

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