Reading List: Zeitgeisty Fiction

September 2013

Reviewed: Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan  A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins  Microserfs by Douglas Coupland  Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple


How we see that past is so often determined by how we fictionalised it: is it possible to even begin to understand Victorian England without reference to Oliver Twist, the Roaring Twenties without reference to Jay Gatsby, the rise of 50s youth culture without brining Holden Caulfield’s hunting hat to mind? Great novelists build time capsules. The issue, of course, is that at the time of the fictionalizing, nobody has the faintest idea what’s worth preserving. Those toughing it out as literary novelists are almost all interested in just one thing: figuring out how to craft something that’s timely, but that will age gracefully, too.

The world we live in is difficult to fictionalise well, because it’s nearly impossible to separate the epoch-making from the trivial. Will novels making reference to Twitter and Facebook seem dated in five years, or regarded as important cultural artifacts in a hundred? Is it even possible to write timeless fiction about a culture that continuously ‘disrupts’ and re-disrupts itself at the speed of light?

I picked up Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore shortly before heading to San Francisco. When I got there, it seemed as though every bookseller and web designer in the city was unduly excited about the novel, sort of in the way puppies and kittens get excited about mirrors: Is that me? Yes, I think it is! This was a book about web designers and booksellers in a very strange, skewed-but-not-unrecognisable San Franc, and, in the form of a slightly unconvincing mystery involving an ancient bibliophile cult, an examination of what happens in the spaces where digital and analogue meet. Walking around the hills of San Francisco, I could certainly feel that tension: half of the city feels very real, and half of it feels as though it wants to evaporate, one bit at a time, into The Cloud.

Scott Hutchins’ A Working Theory of Love was published on the same day as Penumbra, and it’s ostensibly pretty similar: both are set in San Francisco, and both deal with the intersection between technology and human relationships. In A Working Theory, the protagonist is working to recreate his father in the form of a chatterbot in order to win an artificial intelligence prize. A Working Theory is, if anything, the more ‘literary’ of the two novels: Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra has been compared, on more than one occasion, to The Da Vinci Code, but Hutchins’ story is less overtly playful and full of more writerly, self-serious passages like, “The world doesn’t come down on the side of seem or be, but remains negotiated in the space in between.”

What I found compelling about both Sloan and Hutchins was their ability to explore technology naturally, without their works collapsing into genre ‘science fiction’. We are living in a world in which most of us spend most of our time with headphones in our ears, or staring at screens, or recording something to watch on our screens or listen to with our headphones, but mainstream ‘literary’ novelists so far haven’t, as a whole, done a great job of depicting that reality.

From A Working Theory, I jumped first to Douglas Coupland’s 1995 Microserfs and then onto Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Set largely in Seattle, Where’d You Go is a tragi-comic epistolary novel about experimental architecture, private-school mothers, Antarctica, and New Delhi-based virtual assistants. It’s also a spiritual successor, in some ways, to Microserfs, which fictionalised what it meant to work for Microsoft in the years preceding the dot-com burst. In Where’d You Go, Microsoft features prominently, but, almost twenty years later, the company and its employees are very different: they’re older, with children, and Microsoft has shifted well away from the centre of the technological universe. Semple manages to weave our gadget-mediated reality into her narrative flawlessly and hilariously: the title character’s husband is famous for giving the number-four-most-watched-of-all-time TEDTalk, and there’s a wonderfully awkward exchange in which one of the Microsoft employees struggles, and fails, to explain to somebody outside the company what he actually does for a living (“My team is working on an end-user, C Sharp interface for HTML5…”).

These books are made more interesting in combination. They’re all about ‘the way we live in now’ – about, at least tangentially, our always-on devices and our strong collective desire to escape from those always-on devices – and taken together they make the specific shape of our lives just that little bit clearer. Whether or not any one of these particular novels end up defining our era, making that vaunted leap from ‘timely’ to ‘timeless’, one very much like them almost certainly will.


(This piece originally appeared in CityMag #1)