Published in 1980, this is the first of two truly excellent novels by John Sladek. The sequel is Roderick at Random. They were originally meant to be a single work, but due to their size, the publisher decided to split them up.
Ostensibly, the novel relates the misadventures of Roderick, an experimental robot, as he tries to find meaning and purpose in modern city life. Sladek delights, however, in going off on wild tangents, dragging the hapless reader along through multiple plot threads. The result is a weird and wonderful, if slightly confusing, collage of scenes and impressions. As Roderick slowly starts piecing together the connections and relationships between the people he meets and the places he visits, so too do we.
And the picture that emerges is fractured, dark, viciously funny. Echoes of Candide and Catch-22 are everywhere, as the author brings his considerable satirical talents to bear, ridiculing and subverting religion, materialism, the American public school system, the scientific viewpoint, and ultimately, human stupidity. If you like to laugh at yourself, or just want to know what's so funny, Roderick is worth reading.
Roderick may be easy to pick up and hard to put down, but it is certainly not a novel to be read once and then forgotten. The author enjoys making obscure references, and is not in the habit of over-explaining anything, often making it difficult to understand just what he is talking about. The rapid flow of events and Sladek's acerbic wit make for a stunning, often breathless, ride, and upon first reading the book, it will probably be easier to just blaze through it and not worry unduly about parts that are vague or unclear. This will leave you with the vague impression of having read something profoundly brilliant, but the specific details of many scenes will remain hazy. This is normal. Let it simmer for a bit, then come back to it; read through it again, more carefully this time, or just reread whichever scenes you feel deserve a second glance.
The novel has its faults too, of course. The wild proliferation of characters inevitably leads to many of them being little more than carboard cut-outs, caricatures used to make a point and then discarded. Plot threads are often left dangling; one sometimes wishes Sladek had let himself linger a bit more on a particularly delightful scene or an exceptionally well-done character.
Roderick is a novel that will challenge you. Often, you will be chuckling over a stream of hilarious invective or subtle satire, only to turn the page and find that Sladek has suddenly shifted the topic and is now making fun of something you hold near and dear. And here's the important question: can you keep laughing?
If you can, then this just might be the novel for you.