Review: Eliot Peper’s “Neon Fever Dream”

by Miles Raymer


I became aware of Eliot Peper a couple months ago when he requested a review of his novel CumulusAfter thoroughly enjoying that first sample of Peper’s work, I was more than happy to peruse an advanced review copy of his most recent novel, Neon Fever Dream. Although it contains some clever thinking and a few fun moments, it’s hard to say that Neon Fever Dream is a step forward in Peper’s evolution as an author. It doesn’t pack the same intellectual punch as Cumulus, and the development of its protagonist is largely suppressed by the cliché nature of the central conflict.

It’s important to acknowledge that I am probably not the ideal reader for this novel. Neon Fever Dream takes place almost entirely at Burning Man, an annual gathering where thousands of people head to a Nevada desert for a week-long experiment in “radical self-expression,” art, and general debauchery. I am one of those Californians who has heard about Burning Man for years but never felt the desire to attend, mostly because it always sounded far too intense for an ambivert who enjoys the comforts of home. As with Asha, this novel’s protagonist, my ideas about Burning Man have been formed by “a series of half-overheard stories,” none of which has ever made me think it sounded worth the dusty journey and the punishing heat (loc. 514). When it comes to the mystique and allure of Burning Man, it’s safe to say that guys like me just don’t get it.

Peper’s depiction of Burning Man is more nuanced than a simplistic affirmation of awesomeness, but he also doesn’t have a problem jumping on the Burner bandwagon:

This was a city built and dismantled in a week––a collective piece of art as beautiful and fleeting as the mandala they had watched the monks create with such painstaking care. Calling it a festival was a slight. It was more than that. It was an experiment, an exploration of what it meant to be alive. (loc. 1822)

Burning Man provides an amusing backdrop for a personal-journey-turned-international-crime-thriller, but the unfortunate truth is that Burning Man is pretty much all that Neon Fever Dream has going for it; the plot and characters leave much to be desired.

Despite some obvious efforts on Peper’s part to make Neon Fever Dream about people rather than plot, plot still wins the day (I had similar problems with Cumulus). I never grew to care much for Asha, a Krav Maga instructor who runs off to Burning Man because she’s upset that her parents have arranged an engagement without her consent. It’s not a bad start as far as potential for character development goes, but Asha quickly becomes tangled up in a crime plot that even Peper himself seems to think is lifeless:

You already know the basics. Annual meatspace gathering of seriously evil fucks who want to avoid surveillance. Founded and run by the MC, an ex-intelligence agent who saw how valuable a secure meeting like this could be and went rogue to establish it. Used his network and assets from years of spy work to get the thing off the ground. It’s basically an ultraexclusive social club. (loc. 1522)

Once this plot thread enters the narrative, the rest of what plays out is painfully predictable. Asha meets a few new people, all of whom eventually tie into the plot in ways that feel far too neat in contrast to the randomness and revelry of Peper’s chosen setting. And the few parts that aren’t predictable feel rather unbelievable––especially the reveal of the MC’s identity. Peper displays some valuable thinking about the difficulty of navigating split loyalties and transparency in personal relationships, but these messages don’t land properly because our investment in the characters is so meager.

Ultimately, Neon Fever Dream is an unsuccessful collision of two genres––neither a convincing tale of personal growth nor a thriller that actually thrills. I know firsthand that Peper is a talented and intelligent person, and I do not believe this book accurately represents his potential as a thinker and writer. I expect he will prove resilient and tenacious, however, and look forward to whatever comes next.

Rating: 4/10