Connect, by Julian Gough, Picador, 468 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1509809837
A psychologist once told me that to understand what someone’s kernel is you just determine what their world was built from and what they cared about when they came into consciousness. Whatever obtained in their late teens or early adulthood, said the psychologist, that is their pith and everything coming later they don’t and won’t get.
I was born in 1954: I became conscious in the late 1960s. So when I came to consciousness the objects that enabled my world were (the list is not exhaustive) gramophones, typewriters, telephones, cinema projectors, railways and motorcars. Technologically speaking (for it’s my tech kernel that matters, given the novel here under review) I’m a late nineteenth and early twentieth century guy: that is why a good postal service matters more to me today than broadband rollout.
Now, much has happened since the 1960s and I’ve tried to keep up. I have a computer and I do write emails: but I prefer letters and I use the train whenever possible. Oh, and I don’t own an iPhone. Readers should bear the above in mind as they read what follows.
Julian Gough’s early novels and stories are satires – ludic, deft and linguistically extravagant. Their targets are either Hibernia and her priestly, hide-bound ways or our bonkers global economic system, and Gough gives his targets a pretty good drubbing. But – and this is the really important thing about these works – he always favours laughter over point-scoring. One likes that in a satirist, or at any rate I do. Better pleasure-giving than finger-pointing any day.
Gough’s new novel, Connect, both derogates from and remains true to his established practices. The language (this is what’s new) is brutally simple, plain and demotic, whilst the engagement with the world and the determination to lambaste its idiocies (always Gough’s style) remains in play.
Connect is set in America in the future. The internet is over everything – everything – and the whole world and everything in it is online. (I know that’s a poor sentence but I literally don’t have the language to say it better. Remember this is a creature of the 1960s reviewing a novel about the future.) Our principal characters are Naomi and her son, Colt. She’s a single mom: her estranged husband, Ryan, works for the deep state (security). She’s a scientist (biotech). Colt is a geek and a genius hacker who doesn’t fit in (social anxiety). He’s also a lonely virgin who lusts after the local pizza delivery girl, Sasha (she wears a leather jacket and rides a motorbike), and being unable to face the actual world (or her) he spends his days in a fantasy world, gaming.
The story is a noirish mixture that runs something like this. Naomi makes a major scientific breakthrough; Ryan, the ex-husband, steals her research for the deep state. This reanimates the old marital antagonisms. Colt, meanwhile, augments his brain: he turns it into a supercomputer and plugs it into the world wide web. Ryan “kidnaps” his son: he wants him working for the security services; well of course he does, Colt’s got the biggest brain ever. Naomi kidnaps her son back. Ryan, out of pique and rage and hurt and thwarted affection (he loves Naomi in his weird American way) triggers his special invention, an immune system for the world, and tasks it to track mother and son and kill them. There is a chase which lasts about eighty pages. Fortunately, thanks to his super-brain, Colt is able to elude “the man”, get home with his mother safely and (I think) disable the immune system. At the end the victorious Colt, finally freed of his geekhood and now human because of all he’s endured, hooks up with Sasha (the pizza delivery girl) and they make love; so, as in Hitchcock’s film North By Northwest, the climax is a climax.
The subject of this book is technology: Gough clearly admires technology (and knows a lot about it – the book is packed with quotes from texts he’s read and studied) but technology also worries him deeply for two reasons (and it’s to warn us that he’s written this novel): one, the technology which we have made since the Second World War is now remaking us (“But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools” – Thoreau, Walden) and two, the new technology is about to recalibrate the world for the benefit of the military-industrial complex, as Dwight D Eisenhower characterised America’s real power centre, on January 17th, 1961, in the last speech he gave as president of the United States.
I am sure Gough is right. We are being altered by technology and new technology has given the state powers that the despots of the past could only have dreamt about. One example will suffice: we now know, thanks to Mr Snowden, that “they” can and do read everything on the internet, by which I mean our emails – all of them. There’s no such thing as privacy anymore. It’s over. As a paranoid citizen of the world I believe Gough’s performing an important public service by warning us, as he does, about what’s coming: however, as a reader, I also feel bound to point out that in order to make his case Gough has to put a lot of technology into Connect and frankly I didn’t understand it. Not really. Yes, I got the broad direction of travel but I was unable to enjoy much of the detailed content of this novel because, quite simply, it was beyond my ken. Dystopian novels which seek to attack systems and protocols will always have this problem: it’s just something one has to (or I have to) accept, I know.
The other problem with all the technology is that it occupies so much bandwidth there isn’t any room left for Gough to do the things that writers usually do in novels, which is to tell us about people and how they tick – or at least to do so as much as I craved, at any rate. Colt’s estrangement and alienation – I’d have liked much more on that: and his getting it on with Sasha at the end isn’t (for me) just as rich and complex as it could or ought to have been and, more troublingly, because it isn’t described amply enough, it comes across as something willed by the author in order to bring his novel to a conclusion, rather than the inevitable organic outgrowth of the narrative. Naomi’s character is also insufficiently. Naomi (as we discover, when we go with her to New York to deliver a paper) is a sexual masochist: how she became one, and her life as one, are important and could (or indeed should) have been explored much more.
On the other hand, though I am criticising the novel’s thinness (as I see it) with regard to its character content (how much it tells us about what people are like) I also understand its thinness is a kind of truthfulness: the world that is not so far off that Gough is warning us about is a world that will leave little or no room for people’s personalities and human specificity: this world will only be about technology: so a novel about technology without much (or enough) about people’s personalities and human specificity is actually on the money. This novel enacts, in other words, something of the inhuman future that awaits us. I can’t say I’m looking forward to it, though I thank Mr Gough for letting me know what I sort of suspected: for me, a devotee of late nineteenth and early twentieth century technology, the future – it really isn’t going to cut it.
Carlo Gébler is a writer, teacher and regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books.