The Pickle Index: Review

Thomas McMullan

Put a pickle beside an iPhone and you have two different design directions. One of those things is sleek and angular, the other ribbed and rotund. One is advertised on tube platforms, the other hidden in jars under stairs. Pickles are in fact so antithetical to the aesthetics of desire touted by Apple, Samsung et al that I second guessed the name of the app I was supposed to find. I assumed it must be something innocuously digital like the Pixel Index. But no. Pickles. Fat pickles. Wet pickles. The Pickle Index.

I raise this because I want to make a point about about how deliciously jarring The Pickle Index is. Loaded up on your phone, Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn’s app occupies a square much like the other gamut of social networks that take up bytes of memory and furlongs of brainspace. On the suface it even resembles a social app. After you watch a video of attractive people (gorging on fermented cucumbers), you’re placed in a clunky menu that could very well have been put together by a tech startup. Delve further and things get weirder.

Each day comes with a daily article. After reading the first post you are encouraged to explore The Index; a network of pickle recipes that, once obtained, are stored in your Cookbook. While the form is familiar the content is absurd. It takes the language of Twitter and Facebook, and pushes it into a direction that veers somewhere on the more disorientating side of silly. Keep trawling through recipes, however, and you’ll eventually find entries that turn out to be clandestine narrative fragments. Between these chapters and the daily articles, a story gradually emerges of a circus troupe on a journey to save their ringmaster, Zloty Kornblatt, who has been imprisoned for impersonating the leader of a despotic government.

During my first few days with the app I found the prose to be overladen with kook – a few too many pet octopuses and cartoonish autocracies –  but after several rounds of searching for recipes and contributing my own to keep my “Citizenship Quotient” afloat, I began to feel attached to the freewheeling adventure tucked beneath my daily feed of brine-based advice. Like most digital texts, the form tends to overshadow the content. This is a pity because, although its zaniness may occasionally grate, there is much to like about the writing itself. Horowitz clearly relishes creating extravagant characters, and the band of circus performers are grotesque enough to prevent the story from falling into twee territory.   

The slapstick tone is markedly different from Horowitz’s previous project, The Silent History, which told the story of a generation of children born with an inability to comprehend language. The sense of realism underpinning that scenario – told via testimonials and field reports – is absent in The Pickle Index, and the GPS mapping of The Silent History into location-specific sections doesn’t have an analogous sense of grounding in this tale. Instead, there is a sense that Horowitz wants to unhinge the reader’s pattern of phone-reading and transport it somewhere confusingly fantastical.

To this effect, I appreciate the way little about the layout of the app is explained, as well as how inaccessible the first few hours are. While it would’ve been easy to hold the reader’s hand and try to shove a few paragraphs down their throat before they got bored and decided to check their email, Horowitz and Quinn have instead made obtaining each chapter a task. The effort required to access each chunk of text conversely made me care more about digesting it, and while time it takes to map recipes from person to person does stray into the ridiculous, there is a purposeful obstinacy to the app that kicks the reader’s’ expectation for immediacy right in the shin.

The Pickle Index is described on its maker’s website as “a short novel”. While it is also available as a double-hardcover edition and in a more tradition paperback edition, it seems designed from the ground up with the language of phones and tablets in mind. With its tendency to assimilate and subvert the grammar of social media, the tale is an excellent example of a writer engaging with phones and tablets as truly digital platforms, rather than as electronic text scrollers. While a pickle and an iPhone may seem like incongruous partners, The Pickle Index puts them together with memorable style.

 

Thomas McMullan is a London-based writer and journalist. His work has been published by LighthouseMinor Literature[s]3:AM MagazineThe Stockholm Review, The Literateur and Cadaverine Magazine. He is a staff writer at Alphr, contributes to The Guardian and is currently seeking representation. Website Twitter

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