Review by Max Dunbar
If you value your life, don’t fuck with Damani, gig economy driver extraordinaire. In her cab she has ‘a switchblade in the glove compartment (which I normally kept in my back pocket) a tire iron under my seat, pepper spray by my door’ and that’s just in the body of the vehicle: in her trunk she keeps ‘a bottle of bleach, some rope, a baseball bat’ plus ‘a roll of duct tape, because duct tape will do just about anything you want it to.’ There’s also plenty of cleaning equipment to clean up soilage from passengers, which seems a regular occurrence. Damani says: ‘As a driver, you have to protect yourself. Out there in the city, we’re on our own.’
We don’t know which city this is because Damani won’t tell us. ‘As long as I’m alive, does it really matter where I am? Besides, if the wrong people knew my location, they’d find me, fine me, put me in prison for something that wasn’t my fault. Am I just paranoid?’ The city is nameless, but not formless. Contemporary and political references abound. There are a few high-end places and plush neighbourhoods but most of this urban landscape is just roads, falling-down houses, and decay, distinctive but not memorable. The world is perceived through an indifferent and exhausted gaze.
Yet things are changing. The main streets seem constantly riven by gigantic demonstrations for multiple disparate progressive causes. (Priya Guns is a great observers of protest signs, from the twee to the nonsensical: ‘WARM YOUR HEARTS, NOT THE PLANET,’ ‘FRACK OFF, EARTHFRACKERS!’ ‘O-KKK BOOMER’…) It only seems to be the better-off folk who take to the streets, but their harmless demos lead to concerns about ‘unrest’ in the city, to which the police respond by targeting inhabitants who are more vulnerable to arrest. Businesses are raided, people get deported, or simply disappear into the system. A large group of immigrants are removed to remote accommodation and burned alive there.
We did not know this at the time, but a few weeks ago the sheds had been refitted and used by the ‘authorities’ to house two hundred people seeking refuge. But something happened. The reports in most media emphasised that it had been desert dry with scorching temperatures. These days that’s all it takes to spark a flame.
In this city it always feels like the end of a hot, sullen afternoon when things are about to kick off. It takes almost nothing to spark a flame.
Damani drives for a RideShare taxi app and has to work an average twelve hours a day to keep going. She has a sick mother to care for and no prospects of fulfilling her modest ambitions. Everything is precarious and has to be fought for anew each day, even the RideShare gig – ‘People are getting deactivated for nothing’. Her grief for her father Damani carries everywhere she goes; we always feel its weight.
It seems like a pretty shitty life. But Damani’s strength is her physicality. She loves weightlifting and draws strength from the endorphins. And she loves sex. She has a serenity that comes with feeling relaxed in your own body. She carries her freedom around in her jaws, like Kafka’s panther. She has good friends, loyal customers and even a place where she can always feel happy and safe – the Doo Wop, an arty squat warehouse type venue: although even the Doo Wop is vulnerable.
Priya Guns doesn’t bludgeon us with pity for her characters. A lesser writer would have a very long first chapter with lots of clunky exposition and bitter detail. Guns just throws us into the rhythm of Damani’s days. It’s difficult to establish a realistic routine in fiction but Guns does it easily. The book slides past in short, intense passages. Damani lives out of her cab and is way too busy for despair.
When Jolene turns up, the two have an instant connection, but their relationship develops in snatched moments, from significant acquaintances to lovers. Jolene is everything Damani isn’t – white, blonde and rich. She is a social worker but there is a sense that her background is so wealthy that she doesn’t really need to work for a living. (One of Priya Guns’s subtle observations about neoliberalism is that work is no longer really meant to support people but to give the rich something to do, like the constant demonstrations.) The relationship is happy and intense but ultimately it ruptures because Damani doesn’t feel like she belongs in Jolene’s world and Jolene will never feel truly safe in Damani’s. It feels in the later chapters that Damani has been felled by Simone Weil’s ‘touch of love’ that brings forth pain ‘which results in anger and sometimes hatred for whoever has provoked this pain.’
This is a book about surveillance capitalism, but Guns never lectures us, simply lays out the story and lets us work things out for ourselves – for example, the RideShare app not only allows customers to rate drivers, but drivers to rate customers: every time Damani picks up a fare she introduces them as ‘Derek (3.4 stars)’ or ‘Daisy (4.2 stars)’. We’re all being watched and evaluated and graded by the algorithm, and Damani is much freer when she really does get ‘deactivated’ for good. Outside her routine she finds she can not only survive but thrive. Your Driver is Waiting even lacks the uncompromising bleakness of political fiction – but there is, at the end of this novel of routine, some hope.
Max blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com and tweets as @MaxDunbar1.
Priya Guns, Your Driver is Waiting (Atlantic, 2023). 978-1838954260, 304pp., hardback.
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