Off the Grid: The Catalyst by Brian Courtney is the account of a period of the life of Pan, a man self-exiled to a life of filth, often literal as well as social. By choice, he lives “off-the-grid,” waiting in quiet, medicated terror from the corporate horrors at play – as well as those still to come – for the ignorant American masses as terrible conspiracies come to fruition beneath the surface of America, and fray the fabric of free society.
Off the Grid is a staunchly anti-establishment piece of fiction, to the extent of which the author admits can sometimes border on “soapbox” in his acknowledgments. The book follows Pan A. McCandless – a self-assigned alias, backed with passably-legal credentials – who defies and rejects “The Institution,” a conglomeration of all kinds of governmental and related powers that monitor, log, categorize, and ultimate suppress the “naive” populace: “cheerleaders”. Less of a distinct, neatly-contained story, and much more of a continuous narrative of the life of the decaying cynic Pan, we see through the dimly-tinted lenses into the choking, industrialized heart of modern America.
Throughout the story, the stakes raise as freedoms are encroached upon, inch-by-inch, as Pan makes his own personal struggles, rounding and coming to a head over his various encounters with the forces of The Institution. Characters come and go, meandering through Pan’s now-directionless life along with the flow of every other aspect of his existence, but as things truly heat up beneath their feet, both Pan and the others in his life begin to weigh their ties, priorities and relationships.
The book clearly tries to be off-beat and against “the grain,” making sure to note the gritty, grimy details of every part of Pan’s life with uncomfortable detail and a draining, sarcastic pessimism. The whole piece is a wit-soaked critical Molotov launched against the quasi-real, digital, analogous setting of a perceived pre-Kafka-esque state through Pan’s weary eyes, and making very little attempt to hide it, complete with upside-down stars-and-stripes on the cover as a tip-off. The themes of the shattered American Dream and the death of liberty are potent, and tinge every word with a stagnant, foul acidity, and as much as Pan and the world around him struggles, the pervading theme is of powerlessness, inevitable defeat, and the death throes of an aging anarchist mindset. There are no winners, except The Institution.
Evocative and uncompromising, Off the Grid is as entertaining as it is upsetting, in its numb bitterness, it’s cutting truth, and its wild, unfocused swings at social commentary. Whilst certainly within believable characterization, the off-hand dismissals and wide-brushstroke generalizations hits many discomforting tones, as does the utterly undeviating negativity, making this a read for a very particular set of literary palettes. Inflammatory and saddening, Off the Grid is a unique breed, one of the few remaining offspring of dying modes of thought and resistance, and stands as a strange and remarkable piece as a result.