Review of Nikesh Shukla’s Meatspace by Trevor Coombs Part 2 The Book

This review is by Trevor Coombs, after hearing Nikesh speak at Novel Nights, April 2015

PART 2, the book

When I think of people using social media, I get this image in my head – a city park with grey grass, leafless trees and milky white sky, the sort of sky that absorbs rather than spreads light, cancelling out the world’s shadows and textures. It’s the kind of park Tarkovsky would imagine in one of his films, with jarring atonal music playing slightly too loudly. Into this park wander hundreds of androgynous figures all clutching smartphones, backs hunched over, faces stuck in a blank rictus of concentration and eyes unblinking as they scroll through an ubër language made up of pre-predictive textspeak, clever abbreviations, early-80s Californian surfing idioms and exclamation marks. Unable to leave the park, they walk, sometimes in straight lines, but mostly in figures of eight – infinity symbols, möebuis strips – their eyes never leaving their screens. Now and again they bump into each other. Some apologise, some don’t, some utter OMG! and WTF! Occasionally, a poor unfortunate near the edge of the park gets flattened by a black articulated lorry made silent by ear buds and headphones. For twenty seconds, nothing happens. And then it is tweeted. And retweeted. Backs straighten, heads swivel, eyes become alert, thumbs collectively gravitate toward camera app icons and blog sign-ins.

I don’t get this image in my head at all. I made it up. It’s a taster of the style and content I’d probably end up using should I ever be forced to write a novel about social media. I would probably convince myself I was slotting into some clever satire-with-near-future-dystopia genre as I was scribbling away, but the end result would be subtlety-free, assembled from imagery shoehorned in from elsewhere, overlaid with the rantings of a trainee grumpy old man. By the way, the only research I did for the above comes from observing figures on Bristol’s streets.

I’m not in the right demographic for this kind of writing, neither as writer, nor as reader. Or so I thought. After all, I enjoyed Nikesh’s appearance at Novel Nights, so much so I bought the book. What’s more, I read it in less than a week. So maybe overthinking it and uttering flashy terms like demographic misses the point. Writing good enough to keep you turning the pages is good writing, no matter your age, online profile or literary disposition.

 

After a quick record of the protagonist Kitab Balasubramanyam’s browsing history, Meatspace opens with, The first and last thing I do everyday is see what strangers are saying about me. We’re right in there with the vanity search – we all do it, don’t we? But Kitab seems to do it a lot, and there’s something more than just vanity going on here. In amongst the bot generated stuff coming at him via a plethora of feeds, he finds a message from his dad, an email from his recent ex who he’s clearly still in love with, and a friend request from somebody with the same name, Kitab 2 (Kitab, by the way, means book in Hindi and Punjabi). Not much for a super-connected kid, because he sees his dad regularly, his ex he doesn’t want to think about too much, and why respond to someone just because they have the same name?

Kitab is a writer, moderately successful with his first book, meant to be working on the second but not getting around to it, and now the only literary thing he does is give readings, where he meets up often with Hayley who gives him come-on signs like they’re going out of fashion. The other important person in his life is is older brother, Aziz, who writes a hilarious blog which forms alternate chapters.

There are some all too horribly plausible scenarios. The checking of texts and emails during sex. And I particularly liked the Skype dinners where guests cook their own food, open their own wine and then log on to Skype and eat and chat with others without leaving the comfort of their own screen (for some reason, I was reminded of Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island here). If Skype dinners aren’t already happening, they soon will be. I suppose it saves on one person having to fork out for the food and wine, and having to do all the washing up.

Kitab’s brother, Aziz, decides to go to New York to trace someone whose bow-tie tattoo he likes, and where, after he joins up with a vigilante group who all dress as superheroes, his blog posts become ever more bizarre.

Are Facebook friends real friends? And what of followers? It’s a short leap from friend/follower to troll/stalker. Back comes Kitab 2. He just won’t go away, and we are obliged to follow Kitab into the nightmare world of identity theft – the hacking of accounts, the generating of compromising content and the posting of revenge porn-like pictures. And so the story continues. Will Kitab get it on with Hayley? Will he sort out Kitab 2 and get his online accounts – ergo his life – back? And why are his brother’s blog posts slipping into the bizarre?

Early on, I could see this was a story about loneliness, of the I-have-a-prodigious-number-of-friends-and-followers-online-but-nobody-to-talk-to-in-real-life variety, and I could see social media as a refuge from the meatspace real world – a way of avoiding certain truths. But the story took me to some unexpected places, and I genuinely didn’t see the twist coming at the end. So things are not always as they seem in this story. Just like social media.

Trevor Coombs

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