In the movie Machete, there’s a scene in which Danny Trejo rips out an opponent’s intestines and, leaping from a window, uses them like rope to rappel down the side of a building. As action scenes go, this one has extra habanero.
In his new novel, I Hate the Internet, Jarett Kobek performs a similar maneuver on the viscera of the American psyche, at least as regards the so-called information highway. I can’t decide if, on his way down, Kobek is laughing or weeping.
Don’t be put off by this book’s feeble title. I Hate the Internet isn’t a book about, I don’t know, why your selfies always make you look dumpy. Instead it’s a grainy political and cultural rant, a sustained shriek about power and morality in a new global era. It’s a glimpse at a lively mind at full boil.
“Nothing says individuality,” Kobek comments about a generation’s laptops and cellphones, “like 500 million consumer electronics built by slaves. Welcome to hell.” He’s just getting tuned up.
Kobek is a Turkish-American writer who lives in California. His first novel, Atta (2011), was a fictionalized biography of the Sept 11 hijacker-pilot Mohamed Atta.
His new novel is ostensibly the story of a middle-aged comic-book writer named Adeline. She lives in San Francisco and mourns its gentrification at the hands of venture capitalists and tech startups. The city’s misfits, of whom she is one, are being pushed out.
The story begins as Adeline commits “the only unforgivable sin of the 21st century.” That is, invited to give a lecture, she neglects to notice that someone is recording her. Adeline has other problems, Kobek suggests: “(1) She was a woman in a culture that hated women. (2) She’d become kind of famous. (3) She’d expressed unpopular opinions.”
Some of these opinions, which become infamous on YouTube, are on why women should be leery of working for tech companies. “All these crazy young ones are lining up to burn in their very own Shirtwaist Factories, screaming that they’re empowered by the very technology that’s set them aflame,” Adeline says, in her goofy trans-Atlantic accent, which makes her sound like “a drugged out Diana Vreeland.”
Some of these opinions are complaints about the fantasies of fame and power in the songs, videos and social media of today’s pop stars. “A wide range of humanity believed that Beyonce and Rihanna were inspirations rather than vultures,” we read. “Adeline had spit on their gods.” Adeline barely knows what Twitter is. Attack Bey and RiRi? She’s about to find out about its self-righteous side.
Adeline’s story sits alongside that of a younger woman, Ellen, whose life is destroyed after an old boyfriend’s pictures of her, taken during sex, are splashed across the web. Each of these women, in Kobek’s hands, is interesting and sympathetic. But I Hate the Internet is fundamentally a platform for the author’s slashing social criticism.
There’s a bit of the French writer Michel Houellebecq in Kobek’s profane satire. There’s a bit of Thomas Piketty in his obsession with economic inequality. There’s a bit of the Ambrose Bierce of The Devil’s Dictionary in his ability to take words and ideas and invest them with uglier and thus usually more accurate meanings.
New definitions? Comics, here, are “subtle pornography for the mentally backward.” Comic-book conventions are “an excuse for people to dress up like the intellectual properties of major corporations.” Money is “the unit by which people measured humiliation. What would you do for a dollar?”
Amazon: “an unprofitable Web site dedicated to the destruction of the publishing industry.” Instagram: “the first social media platform to which the only sane reaction was hate.” Then there’s this about George W. Bush’s paintings: “Like peering into the shattered mind of a suicidal beagle that’s lost depth perspective.”
This is a shaggy and quite entertaining novel of ideas. The two most prominent of these are: Why are humans so eager, on sites like Twitter and Facebook, to give away their intellectual property to wealthy white men? And: What has happened to political activism? Do people think typing 140-character morality lectures is pushing society forward?
“One of the curious aspects of the 21st century was the great delusion among many people, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, that freedom of speech and freedom of expression were best exercised on technology platforms owned by corporations dedicated to making as much money as possible,” Kobek writes.
A majority of these tweeted opinions, he notes, are smug and hypocritical when not utterly inane. Take Twitter and racism, which brings out the worst in almost everyone. “Expressing concern about racism was a new religion,” Kobek writes, “and focusing on language rather than political mechanics was an effortless, and meaningless, way of making sure one was seen in a front-row pew of the new church.”
Like all jeremiads, I Hate the Internet is far better at posing questions than formulating answers. You will sometimes wish that a woman, or an African-American, had composed these acid observations about feminism and race.
At times the author loses his focus; at other times you will sense a bit of halitotic spittle striking your chin. Yet this book has soul as well as nerve. It suggests that, as the author writes, “the whole world was on a script of loss, and people only received their pages moments before they read their lines.”
My advice? Log off Twitter for a day. Pick this up instead.
I Hate the Internet: A Useful Novel
By Jarett Kobek
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