By MT Anderson, Candlewick, 320pp, $7.99
MT Anderson's dystopian 2002 novel Feed takes place in a future where most of the people of the world are connected to a global network through brain implantation, the technology actually taking over many of the processes of the limbic system to the point where once installed it cannot be removed without killing the host. Those plugged into this "Feed" are bombarded by a constant barrage of entertainment and advertisement customized to their own tastes, which the Feed learns by monitoring everything they do. (Privacy is a thing of the past.) Schools are completely privatized and more concerned with teaching you how to shop than teaching you arithmetic, reading and writing are forgotten arts known only by university professors, and a criminally irresponsible government covers up any corporate wrong-doing. When people start getting lesions all over their bodies, the president goes on the Feed to insist that all rumors that this is caused by corporate activities are absurd. Meanwhile, characters in a popular Feed show get lesions, and suddenly lesions are cool; teenagers start having artificial lesions cut into them. The planet is dying—there are almost no fish left in the sea, and oxygen factories have replaced the world's wild plant life. And no one seems to care; in fact no one seems to be paying any attention at all, intent as they are on distracting themselves with Feed shows and movies and shopping and advertisements, all of which are dumbed-down to the point of inanity.
Into this milieu is thrown a love story between protagonist everyman Titus and odd-ball poor girl Violet, who's home schooled and didn't even get the Feed until she was 7. This love story is the strongest part of the narrative, the two characters' simultaneous attraction and repulsion to each other played out in a complicated push-and-pull as each discovers (or fails to discover) what the other is about. There are tender moments here, and moments of revelation where the inner workings of a character's mind suddenly come clear like a window shade being let up. Also the novel contains real wit, and moments of excellent comedy, mostly at the expense of the over-the-top consumerist world in which these characters live. Unfortunately, the over-the-top nature of this worlds is also the novel's greatest flaw.
It goes without saying that part of the satirical method is to exaggerate modern-day problems. However, here the exaggeration was often so extreme and one-sided that it was hard to find credible, especially when otherwise serious and three-dimensional characters are abutted against it. You are meant to sympathize with Violet, for instance, when her Feed is malfunctioning and her life is in peril. But when she calls the Feed's help line, an automated avatar asks her if she's having problems deciding what to buy, as if that's the only possible thing someone could call the Feed help line about. Later, when her petition to the company to have her malfunctioning Feed repaired for free is denied (as her family can't afford the repairs themselves, and with out the repairs Violet—spoiler alert—will surely die), the reason given is that the company doesn't have enough of a handle on her shopping habits to make her a worthwhile investment. But the real problem with credibility comes with the book's main point of concern—the apathy of the masses. This apathy is blown up to such an extent in this book that even when corporate irresponsibility is causing people's hair to fall out and skin to fall off, no one seems to be bothered. Cartoonishness of this sort would be amusing in a cartoonish story, but in one with so much grittiness and realism it just seems incongruous. In general, the world which Anderson is criticizing (predicated on assumptions that people are getting more apathetic, entertainment is getting more dumbed down, and the world is all around going to hell in a handbasket—none of which, incidentally, are assumptions that I hold) is so singularly vile that it comes off as a simplistic straw man, and for this reason when a character like Violet rebels against it and is brought low, it's difficult to sympathize with her.
This book is marketed as a Young Adult novel and before my genre conversion I might have written it off as such. That is, a simplistic book for teens to help them question our consumerist culture—a laudable enough aim. And yet not only have I been exposed to works in the Young Adult genre that can compare with anything in the other sections of the bookstore, I've even been exposed to works of that caliber by this same author, namely The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. (Which is a book I've been meaning to review here but can't seem to find more to say than "This book is really great and you should read it.") In both of these novels we find an intense distrust and dislike for corporations and their aims, but in Octavian Nothing this fear of the corporate is tempered by the compassion of certain people forced to work within the system in a way that it never is in the pages of Feed. Because its author is simply such a good writer, Feed still comes off as a decent novel, but unlike its brother Octavian, it is not a great one.