by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo
It can be difficult to remember the early age of optimism that once governed the rise of social media. Posting, friending, liking, sharing—these gestures once represented the democratic possibilities of instant connection. Now, around the world, social media has shown its potentials for danger: fomenting hatred, spreading misinformation, bolstering authoritarian regimes, broadcasting horrific violence. The instantaneity and community that social media’s inventors once lauded have curdled. Authors around the world can sense the anxiety and disillusionment the Internet has wrought. This month, Booked and Printed examines two thrillers’ approaches, speculating on the still evolving role of social media in characters’ lives.
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Louis Greenberg’s novel, Green Valley (Titan Books, $14.95), imagines the possibilities of turning away from the Internet and its discontents. The town of Stanton has rebelled against all remnants of the Internet, weary and angry at its monitoring, its propaganda, its penchant for profit and control. The narrator, Lucie Sterling, works as a consultant for the Stanton police department; she is our guide to life post–“Turn,” after Stanton’s movement away from connective electronic devices. Computers, camera monitors, cordless phones—even electronic key cards for doors are banned, with citizens wary of how rapacious corporations might use the information they contain.
Green Valley is a city in a bunker; its residents have chosen the nostalgia of the Internet, opting to live in its old ways. It’s an electronic apartheid; residents do not move freely in and out of Green Valley, and residents of Stanton treat Green Valley holdouts with distaste. When Lucie receives notification that Green Valley children have ended up dead, she gains special permission to enter Green Valley, to check on her niece, Kira, the only child of her deceased sister. So starts her odyssey of discovering the ugly truths behind Green Valley’s surface, and the endless, all-consuming greed of the private corporation running it, profiting from human addiction to electric connectivity.
Greenberg’s use of Lucie’s first-person perspective is straightforward in its satirical tells. In Stanton’s recent past, a spinal implant device called “The I” governed all aspects of public life; “you needed it to bank, to receive a salary, to find work, to access your driving points, to catch public transit, to buy tickets, to make cashless payments,” Lucie explains; a clear reference to today’s public reliance on smartphones. In this world, Luddites are virtuous; Lucie’s arrogant romantic partner, Fabien, rails against the danger of getting “sucked back into complacently giving our freedom away to a corporate-technological tyranny.” Through Lucie, the author grows essayistic in his commentary on social media’s hazards: “All of us, every single goddamn one of us, preening and proving in front of some invisible audience. You could take away the social networks, but our will to compete and compare, our craving for affirmation, would always remain.”
While the premise is intriguing, the relationships that supposedly fuel Lucie’s search for her niece prove less convincing. Readers do not get a sense of who Lucie’s deceased sister Odille was, or the nature of Odille and Lucie’s sibling relationship. Nor do we learn much about the lost niece, Odille’s daughter Kira, beyond her absence and her suffering. The mother and child seem more plot devices than fully imagined characters. We are told that Lucie grieves her sister and pursues her niece, but we are denied a sense of who they are. Green Valley is, overall, more concerned with the project of commenting on the dangers of constant electronic connectivity, while it prevents us from fully connecting with the characters most harmed by “The I’s” effects.
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In Trump Sky Alpha (Graywolf Press, $16), author Mark Doten also imagines a near future of social media and its destructive effects. Anonymous hackers take down the global Internet, cutting the current president off from Twitter. A few days later, after the Internet is restored, Donald J. Trump commandeers a garish “ultraluxury zeppelin,” the Trump Sky Alpha. Then he unleashes a nuclear hellscape, murdering ninety percent of the world’s population.
In the brutal aftermath of this apocalypse, the editor of a cobbled-together version of the New York Times Magazine, closely monitored by an authoritarian version of the remaining U.S. government, asks Rachel, a grieving journalist, to write a story about Internet humor at the end of the world. The U.S. government notices her reporting, then forces her to become an interrogator. Rachel must question a radiation-poisoned, one-book novelist they think is Birdcrash: Sebastian, the man they suspect brought down the Internet in the first place, precipitating Trump’s murderous, nuclear madness.
Rachel is an unwilling, despairing detective, but she agrees to the government’s demand on one condition: they must take her to the mass grave in Brooklyn that might contain the remains of her wife and daughter. She faces an unexpected detour, though, when she’s suddenly kidnapped and held at the mercy of one of fiction’s most memorable, chilling, and weirdly sympathetic villains: an avian-obsessed hacker, wielding a drill.
With its bold telling and relentlessly cynical reading of the future, the post-Trump world Doten evokes carries an aching, stark familiarity. We witness a population riven by opinion, suffering from the terror of violence. The chapters that depict social media posts—what Tweets and Facebook statuses might look like while Trump’s nuclear bombs are falling—comment on social media’s unending performativity: “A raw and increasingly frantic need at the end for validation, for retweets and likes, for—and this became a new joke—the LAST retweets and likes. . . . People demanding we do it their way: don’t make it political, make it political, but do so the right way, along certain precise vectors that reinforce certain notions.”
We are thrust, too, into the enormity of grief that would accompany the crime of such mass murder. While we follow Rachel’s search for Birdcrash, we plunge with her into moments of unbearable longing for her wife and child. An affectionate dinner on a rooftop, spousal banter about divorce, a car ride in which Rachel confronts her own racial obliviousness, an anti-Trump march where she hesitates to resist too loudly. Though Doten’s from-the-headlines commentary is striking, evoking both pain and laughter, the intimate specificity of his characters carries the novel into emotionally resonant, enduring territory.
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Of course, in the time of ancient Athens, there was no social media, though propagandistic preening did exist in its own way.
Buoyed by Pamela Mensch’s fresh, witty translation, Callaway Press has released a small, elegant book of prose sketches by Theophrastus, one of Aristotle’s most beloved pupils: Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behavior ($24.95). This slim volume compiles Theophrastus’ essayistic observations of villainous, foible-laden archetypes in ancient Athens. Each character is accompanied by an irreverent black-and-white caricature drawn by artist André Carrilho.
“The Talker,” for instance, “is the sort who plumps himself down next to someone he doesn’t know and starts praising his own wife; he goes on to describe the dream he had the night before and then relates in detail what he had for dinner . . . And if you stand for this, he’ll never stop.” “The Authoritarian” carries relevant insight into a dictator’s habits of absolute power: “He’s quite apt to make remarks like . . . we should stop running for office and thereby cease depending on their insults or their honors,’ and ‘Either they have to live in this city, or we do.’”
As scholar James Romm explains in his introduction, “All share alike in the petty vices that define the human condition. Characters is itself an agora, a market square of misbehaviors, which the reader is allowed to observe from a comfortable al fresco table.” For help seeing the everyday criminal characteristics, of citizens and readers alike, Theophrastus’ ancient insights serve as a fresh guidebook.