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Top ten novels for media sceptics

Bound & Flogged: here are the top novelists taking a swipe at our social media overlords

Out on October 8, Dave Eggers’ newest novel The Circle, based on life working for a powerful Google/Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest/LinkedIn-esque entity called the Circle, approaches the ‘The Internet is ruining our lives!’ argument from the increasingly (and worryingly) disputed issue of privacy.

Eggers is hardly the first writer to attempt to pin down this age of constant change in comfortingly tangible book form. Some are realistic, in an eye-opening, I-can’t-believe-this-is-familiar-to-me-now kind of way. Others, like The Circle, show how a series of seemingly innocuous developments – a new startup here, a change to privacy policy there – can spiral out of control.

It’s hard to make a character exist in three dimensions when s/he insists on operating in two

Where the target of twentieth-century dystopia was the totalitarian regime, that of the twenty-first is the Internet, which functions not so much as a character as a force that guides, placates, seduces, brainwashes, dictates the characters, who are always at least partially aware but not quite enough to do anything about it. If some of these novels seem heavy – and they do – it’s not because their authors lack deft observational skills, struggling to tap into the world of the twenty-something-year-old social media savant. No, it’s just the nature of this pretty-much-infinite beast. After all, it’s hard to make a character exist in three dimensions when s/he insists on operating in two. 

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Alternately entertaining and eerie, Super Sad True Love Story accounts for the dystopic near-future on both macro and micro scales; as New York descends into riots and economic meltdown, everyone uses a mutant smartphone called an äppärät that, among other not-totally-unimaginable horrors, can live stream users’ thoughts, conversations, hopes and fears, as well as project health and hotness statistics for collective appraisal. 

Look At Me by Jennifer Egan

Egan is notoriously interested in social media; last year, the New Yorker serialized her short story ‘Black Box’ on Twitter. While her Pulitzer-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad also questions our reliance on technology, it’s her prescient second novel, which focuses on the link between image and identity, that really makes us worry. 

Note to Self by Alina Simone

Simone’s funny, haplessly Internet-addicted Anna learns that, no matter how often you refresh your inbox, no matter how many post-Internet video art projects in which you participate, the haziness of a life lived mostly online can fail to prepare you for the uncomfortably human aspects of existence. 

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

While not exactly dystopic, the disconnect between the old worldliness of the novel’s setting in Spain and its protagonist’s distinctly modern disillusionment throws the issues hyperawareness has created into sharp relief. When Adam instant messages with a friend traveling in Mexico, the divide between what happens in the real world and the way we talk about it in the virtual one is striking, disturbing, etc.

I’m Trying to Reach You by Barbara Browning

It’s pretty much impossible to write about the Internet age without mixing highbrow ideas with lowbrow language, but Browning juxtaposes YouTube addiction and dance to paint a particularly weird, beautiful picture of how desperately we try to reach each other today. 

The Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow 

Okay, so it’s not a novel, but this popular cyberpunk seinen manga series is compellingly scary – it imagines a twenty-first century in which hackers can access those people who opt to supplement their biological brains with network interfaces – that we’ll waive that requirement.

Taipei by Tao Lin

Like Lerner, Tao Lin deals with the individual existential crisis of the post-everything generation. The elegance of his writing contrasts sharply with the fucked-upedness of his characters, and Lin’s public persona, both revered and despised, adds a layer of ‘Does it matter?’ complexity the experience of reading. 

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

The Pynchonian narrative sprawl is particularly suited to the age of the Internet, a time when it’s increasingly difficult to tell the difference between what is real and what is satirizing it. Few fiction authors could approach a portrait of the complexity of the era as accurately.


Remote by David Shields 

A pre-cursor to the reader-confusing blend of fiction and nonfiction popular today, Remote gets to the heart of the question ‘Public vs. private?’ in a way that should make even the most Twitter-addicted feel uncomfortable. 

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Describing a post-modern disillusionment more pressing and panicked than Lerner’s or Lin’s, DFW’s posthumous almost-Pulitzer winner is as paradoxical and frustrating in its description of a life we desperately want to be distracted from as our über-mediated existence itself.