“Notes On A Nervous Planet” by Matt Haig (2018)

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“I was stressed out.”

The world is moving ever faster and sometimes it feels like a struggle just to hold on. With the constant bombardment of adverts, breaking news, tweets, social media updates and fear-mongering by anyone with Internet access, it’s no wonder that rates of anxiety, depression and mental malaise seem to have risen so sharply. Fortunately, there are people who are trying to make sense of it all and give us a way to speak out about it. Matt Haig is one of the best.

A couple of years ago, Haig published Reasons to Stay Alive, a frank and moving book about his own struggles with anxiety, panic attacks and suicide. Its success was instant and profound. People across the world thanked him for his words and putting to paper the feelings they’d been struggling to articulate, as well as giving his own tips on how to improve things – or rather, showing us how he did it. He is at pains to insist he isn’t a psychological expert by any means, and his advice is merely based on things he has experienced, but sometimes that’s just a good start.

Notes on a Nervous Planet is the wonderful sequel, this time focusing more on the speed of progress in the world, how the world seems to be working to keep us miserable and anxious (happy people don’t spend money), and how best to cope with things like Twitter and Instagram. We can all make changes to our lives that might alleviate some of the worst problems.

The advice is often simple, or at least appears so: charge your mobile phone outside of your bedroom; don’t stay on Twitter if you’re not enjoying it anymore; read more often; do yoga; go outside more often. Nonetheless, I feel that it all helps. As someone who has had his own issues with anxiety and depression in recent years, it was refreshing to read via Haig’s wonderful prose that I’m not alone. It’s also important to have people talking about these things, as the more we talk about mental health, the more likely the attached stigma will drop away. It’s particularly important, I feel, to have a man talk about it. I appreciate that we live in a world that seems to assume “straight, white male” is the default and people are bored to listening to them, but generally men are told not to express their feelings and to “be strong” all the time. Robert Webb covered this in his memoirs too. This stuff needs to be said – everyone is allowed to cry, and everyone is allowed to feel.

Haig’s book is short but full of profound and charming, lyrical sentences, as well as common sense advice. It’s also raw in places, as he recounts panic attacks and times when he thought he couldn’t carry on. I, for one, am enormously pleased he has, as he’s written some of my favourite books in recent years, including The Humans and How To Stop Time.

Brilliant, beautiful, wise, and important.

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“The Circle” by Dave Eggers (2013)

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The circle must be completed.

The circle must be completed.

“My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven.”

The Internet has changed the way we live in ways and to degrees that no one could ever have predicted. With a few clicks and taps, we can go shopping, share information, review products, communicate with people on the other side of the planet, tell the world about ourselves, pay bills, check our accounts, research topics and a myriad other things. Social media, Facebook, Twitter and the like, allow us to tell everyone what we’re thinking at any moment. Even more remarkably, we don’t even need to be in front a computer to access these powers now – we can be almost anywhere. But, really, is all of this for the good?

Mae Holland has just got a job – thanks to the string-pulling of her friend Annie – at The Circle, the vast corporation that controls most of the social media and online facets of the world, having subsumed Facebook, Google and everyone else sometime in the last six years. Users sign up using bank details and therefore there are no fake accounts anymore, and everyone can share their thoughts 24/7. Mae is employed at the campus in customer support where she must respond quickly to any of the advertisers who require help. But while she’s doing that, she’s got to attend all the non-mandatory but community-building events of the campus, share her own thoughts on everything, answer a constant stream of survey questions and read everyone else’s news feeds too.

While getting acclimatised, she meets two men who are curious about her, and she is fascinated by them. One is the clumsy but caring Francis, with a tragic past that has inspired his future goals, and the other is the strange, ethereal Kalden, a man who doesn’t even seem to exist anywhere in the Circle networks, but has access to everywhere on campus and is adamant that the circle must not be completed. Mae is enjoying her time at the campus, but when it comes to the attention of the bosses – the Three Wise Men – that she isn’t sharing quite as much as she could be, she becomes a cause for concern. As the Circle develops more and more ways to chip away at people’s privacy – all in the name of safety and community – Mae stumbles deeper into a network that is far greater than anything she could have imagined.

So, there is a lot in this book that owes itself to 1984, and probably Brave New World as well, and while I’ve read both, I remember more about the former. Like all good visions of the future, it brings into play our fears and concerns of the modern day. Already Fitbits and health trackers are worn by many, but in this book they become mandatory, measuring your heart rate, calorie intake and stress levels at all times. When the head honchos at the Circle develop SeeChange, tiny cameras that can be placed anywhere in the world without causing a distraction, the book really shows off its main conceit – that “secrets are lies”, and “privacy is theft”.

Mae begins as slightly unusual in this setting, as she doesn’t feel the need to share every waking moment of her life, which causes her colleagues and bosses some consternation. After discovering that Mae occasionally goes down to the bay to kayak by herself, they show genuine distress that there is absolutely no mention of this hobby on any of her networks – not one photo, zing (their version of a tweet), video or joined group that shows her interest in this. Why didn’t she tell anyone what happened when she visited her sick father that weekend? Could her experiences not help someone else who is dealing with a parent with MS? Determined to make her bosses happy, Mae quickly comes round to their way of thinking.

This book is terrifying. This is a world where secrets are seen as evil, and people believe that if anyone has a secret then they must be bad, because if all your thoughts and feelings were good, then why would you hide them? The Circle runs under the guise that knowing everything will lead us, as a species, to be our best selves, as there can be no crime or dishonesty when everything is known. It all makes perfect sense too, if you use that logic, but it’s misguided, and these people are in so deep that they might not be able to see the problems of this new technology.

The parallels between this and our world are also hammered home, but enjoyably so. The man behind the Circle’s foundation is Ty Gospodinov is a hoodie-wearing, rarely-seen expy of Mark Zuckerberg. The Circle campus, too, seems to be parodying Google’s campus, the Googleplex, with its laissez faire attitude – parties every night, thematic offices and general sense of “cool”. The company itself, while possibly having begun as a Facebook-like social network, now encompasses all areas of the Internet, and, like Google, is investing money in a myriad of other fields, such as self-driving cars, deep-sea exploration and crime prevention. Money makes the world go round.

As reality becomes more and more connected, we are perhaps not taking into account the issues of this level of information overload. Do we need to know everything? Are people’s opinions really that vital? Are secrets and lies necessary, even?

Far and away, this is the best book that I’ve read so far this year. It’s been a while since I read something that I could hardly put down, and even though it clocks in at around five hundred pages, it somehow didn’t feel long enough. Mirroring the issues the characters face, the information comes thick and fast, with speedy pacing, great narration and characters who couldn’t belong anywhere else, but fit this universe like a glove. It’s not just a novel – it’s a warning. This is the future, and it’s much closer than we think.

“jPod” by Douglas Coupland (2006)

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Microserfs 2.0

Microserfs 2.0

“Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel.”

This is the book that is responsible for me reviewing all the Coupland books this year. I first read this perhaps six or seven years ago and was instantly taken with Coupland’s style, which is weird because this one seems to suggest some knowledge of his previous books is needed. For a start, Coupland himself, as you can tell from the quote above, is a character within. But I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s get on with the story.

jPod is usually billed as Microserfs 2.0, an updated version of his earlier novel. Both feature groups of young adults working in the computer industry, first in the 1990s and this time in the 2000s, highlighting just how quickly things have changed in just a decade. The story follows Ethan, Bree, Cowboy, John Doe, Evil Mark and Kaitlin, six employees of a video game making company who have been shoved into the same office simply due to an error in the computer system that has shoved together all the employees with surnames beginning with J. The first five explain to Kaitlin, the newest recruit, that there is no escape from jPod, although she’s not against trying.

The story is told from the point of view of Ethan, a fairly average programmer with very complex and strange parents (his mother grows marijuana and has just killed a man, and his father is obsessed with ballroom dancing) and a strong urge to avoid any actual work. He and his colleagues fill their days writing love letters to Ronald McDonald, auctioning themselves on eBay and torturing one another in a myriad of interesting ways.

Things take a turn for the strange, however, when their boss Steve (notable for turning Toblerone around in just two years) disappears and leaves them to their own devices with a game he’s been trying to ruin, under the impression that kids love turtles in their skateboarding games. Is his disappearance fairly run of the mill, or is Chinese gangster Kam Fong somehow involved?

Comparasions to Microserfs are impossible to avoid, given that there are so many similarities between the two. Both have similar protagonists, (both of whom begin dating a new colleague), contain nonsensical non-sequiters (sixty or so pages are filled with digits of pi and random numbers, another twenty are dedicated to a list of prime numbers), and both novels touch on autism and a character’s belief that most people in the tech industry are somewhat autistic. However, there are differences, certainly. This is for the “Google generation”; for the slice of people in this world to whom technology is not new and exciting, but now completely normal and simply part of our lives. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a third novel along a similar line in a few years that details the rise of the iPhone and technology in the early 2010s.

It’s fast, slick and while the characters aren’t exactly three-dimensional, they’re nonetheless pretty strong and seem like a good, if slightly nutty, bunch. My favourite is probably John Doe, who was born on a hippie commune and raised by his staunchly feminist lesbian mother and so now lives his life to be as average as is possible.

The introduction of Coupland as a character is probably the most interesting thing about the book. Coupland himself claims it’s a reference to how intertwined the world has become thanks to the Internet. His character isn’t particularly pleasant, but it’s curious to see his own characters discuss him and the tropes within his novels. By this point, his style is strongly recognisable. Some claim that his self-insertion is vanity of the highest order, but I disagree. I think it’s rather funny and he doesn’t appear to be painting himself in any favourable lights.

It’s full of the things we expect from Coupland – people searching for meaning in a corporate, commercialised world – but there’s something else here that’s completely intangible but makes the book stand out as one of his strongest. Were I to have my time again, I wouldn’t read this one first, but I am pleased that I decided to go back and check out the rest of his oeuvre. His finger is on the pulse of the moment and it’s incredible to see that he hasn’t lost any of his talent for dealing with the here and now that started in Generation X.

“Microserfs” by Douglas Coupland (1995)

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Bill, Be My Friend ... Please!

Bill, Be My Friend … Please!

“This morning, just after 11:00, Michael locked himself in his office and he won’t come out.”

Every decade has its fads, foibles and figureheads, and in the nineties, it was all about the rise of computing and the sudden surge in the abilities of technology. One of the frontrunners at the time was, of course, Microsoft and its wise, kind, unreadable boss, Bill Gates. However, he couldn’t run the company alone and there were (and still are) thousands of people beneath him, earning a miniscule fraction of what he brings home, and it is towards them that Douglas Coupland’s microscope turns in his fourth novel.

Dan Underwood is a bug checker for Microsoft, and his life revolves around his tireless, thankless job. He has a good team around him – desperate-for-a-date Susan, multimillionaire Abe, all-impulse-and–no-consideration Todd, slighty-older-and-slightly-bitter Bug, intelligent-but-undervalued Karla and natural-coder Michael – with whom he also lives. The novel is Dan’s journal, which he’s keeping to help him remember the things that are happening to him in his life, if only maybe to find some meaning.

Struggling to have lives alongside their jobs, Dan and friends are having issues, made worse by the fact that Dan’s father has just been laid off from his job, and Michael has been personally contacted by Bill. Before any of them know it, Michael has been shipped off and out, leaving everyone else to soldier on.

But  then they all get messages from their absconded friend – he has started a new company in California and he wants them all to come and work for him. Realising that things are never going to get any better at Microsoft, they all (with the exception of Abe) pack their bags and head off to work on Michael’s new project with his business partner Ethan. And then there’s a whole new world of issues to deal with.

The characters are all really quite lovely people, harmless and all seeking for some meaning in their lives, much like every Coupland character. They are perhaps not the people you would first want to speak to at a party, but they’re good fun and clearly enjoy one another’s company, saying that the money is just a nice bonus, as long as they can all work together and continue having a laugh. Each character has hardship – Todd, Karla and Susan are estranged from their parents, Bug has been in the closet for years, Ethan is seriously ill – but they, for the most part, remain upbeat.

They are an intelligent lot and within their conversations we find the sort of philosophy that is so familiar to a Coupland novel. There are a lot of discussions about the future of humanity, the future of technology, and what will happen to both as they become more and more entwined. Many pages contain random words, which are Dan’s attempts at bringing out the subconcious of his computer, seeing if there is something more than machinery hidden in there. It’s interesting and weird. The story is also about the generation gap, showing Dan’s parents finding their places in this new world where people have started worshipping their bodies, and technology rules all.

The project that the team are working on, Oop!, actually sounds like a really fun one. I’ve read this book before but this time around there is the idea that their project has actually happened, as it is very similar to an advanced Minecraft. With Oop!, players can build anything from castles and space stations, to ostriches and humans using Lego-like bricks. Lego is prelevant throughout the novel and it makes me want to get a big box and build something.

Microserfs is definitely one of my favourite Coupland novels, fully illustrating the early nineties when everything seemed possible and computers were getting ready to save the world. It may exist in a world before text messaging, Facebook, Flappy Bird and iPods, but it’s still so far ahead of its time. Coupland once again succeeds in capturing a piece of the world and locking it away with perfect clarity.

“Lolito” by Ben Brooks (2013)

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lolito

I haven’t read “Lolita”, so don’t expect any comparasions…

“We’re fifteen and drinking warm cider under the cathedral grounds’ pine trees.”

Ben Brooks is my sworn enemy, although I don’t believe he’s aware of the fact. He was born four years after me, has had six books published, and the only thing that keeps me from giving up now and drowning my tears in a bottle of house wine is that we write in different genres and in a very different language.

I read another of his books a few years ago, Grow Up, and once I’d become less bitter, I actually rather enjoyed it, despite the strangeness of it. I thought I’d try again, and here I am with Lolito.

This is the story of fifteen-year-old Etgar Allison. He has just discovered that his girlfriend of three years, Alice, has “sort of” cheated on him. When punching the other guy involved doesn’t solve anything, Etgar locks himself away, drinking heavily and calling Alice to call her a walrus. Bored, he stumbles into adult chatrooms where he meets Macy, a similarly bored older woman in need of a little comfort. He pretends to be a twenty-something mortgage broker and the two are soon engaging in cybersex.

Macy then announces that she’s going to be in London soon, so Etgar books a hotel to go and meet her. His actions are not those of a smart person, and indeed, I suppose, neither are hers, but they meet and things soon go down the path you would expect them to. But the consequences are dire, and no matter how either of them tries to justify what’s happened, they’ve definitely broken the law…

To be honest, the relationship, such as it is, between Macy and Etgar is probably the bit of the story that is easiest to believe. I suppose that some of my disregard for it comes from the fact that I was a late bloomer and have never been a rebellious soul. These characters are, almost without exception, vile and disgusting. Etgar watches gore videos online with Alice and drinks so much that, were he real, he would almost certainly end up with his stomach pumped. This also appears to be a world in which no one ever gets asked for ID when buying alcohol. The kids – and they are indeed kids – are all fucking each other with such abandon that it shouldn’t be a surprise later on when one of the characters (at fourteen) has just had her second abortion, but it is. They’re busy pretending to be grown up, all doing drugs and drinking from the age of twelve upwards, but the language with which they speak is ultimately juvenile. In fact, the most sympathetic character is probably Macy, and even she’s less than pleasant.

And yet, despite my annoyance at Etgar and the others, there is definitely something about this book, much like the last one of Brooks’ I read. I’ve no idea what it is, but there is something intangible that just lingers out of reach, but makes you want to carry on and find out what happens. At one point I thought it was a sweetness, but that quickly dissolved. Maybe I’m too old, and maybe this is what “the kids” are doing these days, but how many fourteen-year-old girls really know what a golden shower is, much less want to perform one?

I cannot explain this book adequately. I liked it, but the reasons are lost to me. It’s ridiculous, disgusting and runs very close to the bone, and yet there’s a heart in here.  The characters seem cartoonish, sure, but something about them draws you in, regardless. The book is worth a read (although it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart or those of a sensitive disposition – it is, after all, about paedophilia above anything else) and maybe you’ll find something in it and be able to explain to me what it is.

In the reviews on the inside flap, a Tim Key describes Brooks as “a frightening young talent”. I have to agree – he’s talented, but my god if he isn’t horrifying.

“Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan (2012)

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Not enough hours in the day...

Not enough hours in the day…

“Lost in the shadows of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder.”

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me, or is generally reading this, that I absolutely adore bookstores. From the big corporate machines like Waterstone’s to grubby second-hand bookstores down back alleys, I love them all. I’ve been in stores that specialise in politics, or the paranormal. I’ve explored enormous labyrinthine buildings over several floors, or tiny one-room things with curious looking titles. I’ve climbed spiral staircases into dusty attics, and slipped down corridors to damp basements of leathery hardbacks. I even worked briefly in a university bookstore. I will never tire of them, that sense of thousands upon thousands of stories hidden away, waiting to reveal their secrets. And yet, I feel some disappointment, as I will never encounter a bookstore like Mr Penumbra’s.

Our narrator, Clay Jannon, is another one of those bright young things who has been left floundering by the recession. He was working for in web design for a bagel company, but they’ve gone belly up and he is now searching for something else to fill his hours and bank account. A chance encounter at a curious looking bookstore leads to him becoming the night clerk at Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The owner is curious, old and blue-eyed, completely trusting of his staff, but the store itself is stranger still. The single shop room is perhaps thirty feet high, books climbing up into the rafters. There aren’t many traditional books here, mostly unreadable tomes, each branded with a single name.

Even stranger than the books and the store are the customers. They rarely seem to buy anything, just swap out their last book for the next one. Clay becomes curious, wondering what sort of operation is being run here, and he soon finds himself embroiled in a centuries old mystery that he can only crack with the help of his wealthy friend Neel, a pretty young Googler called Kat, and a series of books he adored as a child.

This book, both witty and frothy with fun and love, is a totally engaging read. It takes you from the first printing presses back in history’s depths, right up to the Googleplex, Google’s head office. Clay is a funny narrator, a nerd caught up in a mystery that’s bigger than he can even envision. However, while the characters are lovely and very wonderfully nerdy, it is actually the scenery that dominates this book. Without giving away too much, the places we visit here are the titular bookstore and the aforementioned Google HQ (which, from what I know about Google, seems pretty accurate and definitely believable), but also the offices of a secret society in the middle of New York, a museum dedicated to the science and history of knitting, a city inside a San Francisco apartment, and a subterranean storage facility that contains historical treasures that can’t fit into any above-ground museums. Each is described in beautiful, hypnotic, dazzling detail. I just want to get up and go and find these places.

It’s a book in which the old technology of books and printing presses mixes seemlessly with the modern world of WiFi and Kindles, where the two forms must combine forces and work together to solve the unsolvable. It is a book for anyone deeply passionate about books, but also anyone with a deep fascination for the future of technology, or even the Internet itself, or design! Actually, this is one of those books that I dare anyone not to love.

The right book exactly, at exactly the right time.