I hate the internet. Who doesn’t? OK, so it’s useful: I reserved this book at my local library via the internet, and am now writing a review of it on the internet, which you are reading … on the internet. So I’m more ambivalent than indifferent to the internet: I love it and I hate it at the same time. For something that has really only been used by most people for the last decade or two, it has taken over vast swathes of our lives. Very few novels have acknowledged this seachange in the way we live. Jarett Kobek’s I hate the internet confronts our online lives head-on in a bracing interrogation of what on earth we are doing to ourselves and others.
Adeline has offended the internet. A video of her voicing her opinions on a wide range of subjects has been put online and now Twitter hates her. The previously technologically-illiterate Adeline fights back by getting her own Twitter account and is sucked into all manner of problems – and marketing possibilities. This story is only a very small part of the book, however: the plot (such as it is) meanders along, being constantly diverted into discursive discussions on everything from social media, Silicon Valley, Google and comic books, to the state of modern America.
To start with the problematic aspect of this book: it may be subtitled ‘A novel’ but it isn’t really. The plot is minimal, mostly being concerned with Adeline and her friends offering their opinions on various aspects of the modern world. There is little to no scene-setting, character development, action or description: it mostly consists of talking heads in a void. This isn’t a criticism exactly, as it’s not due to Kobek’s inability to write. He clearly meant the book to take this form. If you like this kind of book, you’ll like this book; if you don’t, you won’t.
Where the book does shine is in its take-downs of a breathtaking range of modern ills. Almost every paragraph skewers at least one feature of modern life, ranging from the banal to the profound. Amongst others, Kobek takes a well-aimed swipe at sexism, racism, celebrity-worship, comic book conventions, Facebook, literary fiction, Ayn Rand, the cost of renting in the San Francisco Bay Area, Received Pronunciation, gentrification, Google, sweatshops, sport, economic deregulation, virtue signalling, twerking and Star Wars. He does not engage in subtle persuasion as to whether the things he criticises are bad: he simply describes them in bald unflinching matter-of-fact terms as if explaining the world to an alien, or a bemused human from the future. For example, Kobek explains one character’s slave ancestry thus:
Sometimes when Jeremy’s male ancestors raped Jeremy’s female ancestors, the underlying biology would produce babies. When these babies were born, they were owned by their fathers or their fathers’ families.
You could rape your property and make new property and that new property would earn you more money. It was a nice time to own people. It was a bad time to be owned.
As you may have guessed from the above quote, Kobek is at his most scathing when slaughtering America’s sacred cows. Thomas Jefferson, the Constitution, Walt Disney, the CIA, the Iraq war, the New York Times, Thanksgiving and baseball are all attacked. Occasionally, small sections of text are blacked out in the style of censorship strips with the accompanying phrase [Jim’ll fix it], in reference to the fact that Jimmy Savile’s fame and wealth enabled him to evade prosecution. This serves as a frequent visual reminder that whether you agree with all of Kobek’s criticisms or not, the importance of speaking truth to power cannot be denied.
I wouldn’t want to regularly read this kind of book as I didn’t find it as emotionally engaging as a novel with a sustained narrative would be. But I did admire Kobek’s attempt to grapple with modern issues commonly ignored by other authors, and found his forthright and combative style refreshing.