Book Review: The Echo Chamber

echo chamber

John Boyne is a prolific writer having had more than twenty books published since his first novel came out in 2000. I have read three of his previous works – The Heart’s Invisible Furies, A Ladder to the Sky and The Boy in Striped Pyjamas – and enjoyed them all. I have also met the author when he appeared at The Marlborough Literature Festival in 2017. He came across as warm and personable as well as being highly entertaining. All of this is to say that, as much as it is possible to like someone you don’t really know, I liked him.

In 2019 Boyne published a novel for younger readers, My Brother’s Name Is Jessica. I was dismayed to see the reaction to this book on social media. As I have not read it I cannot comment on the story, but the abuse Boyne received on Twitter demonstrated how toxic the platform can be when offense is taken. Perhaps it was this episode that inspired The Echo Chamber – a satire on how reputations can be trashed by those determined to ‘cancel’ any who do not agree with their opinion and support their cause.

The tale is told from the points of view of the Cleverley family, who enjoy a life of comfort, wealth and privilege. Sixty year old George works as a popular presenter at the BBC – where he has spent his entire adult life – conducting interviews with the great and the good, some of whom he now talks of as friends. His wife, Beverley, is an author of escapist fiction. Her books may not be regarded as highbrow but have sold in their millions around the world. Nelson, their eldest child, is a teacher with serious social issues. He longs for a girlfriend but struggles to converse in any acceptable way with women. His sister, Elizabeth, aspires to be an influencer, living for the likes and shares of her social media posts as she works to increase her follower count by whatever means. The youngest child, Achilles, is still at school but has found a way to earn money from his good looks, amassing thousands of pounds that he keeps hidden in his wardrobe. The story opens with a brief summary of his birth, an event that coincided with the creation of ‘The Facebook’.

George has always aimed to be open and liberal in his views. However, the contemporary world proves a minefield with its ever-changing vocabulary that must not be misused. When he tweets in support of a young trans woman, but uses the wrong pronoun, a can of worms is opened. With every attempt he makes to explain himself, he makes matters worse.

“‘I admit, I got that very wrong,’ said George, looking genuinely remorseful. ‘And I feel terrible about it. But the terms keep changing and it gets increasingly difficult to keep up. I would never intentionally say something racist, because I’m not racist. Nor, for that matter, would I deliberately insult a transgender person, because I’m not transphobic. But people don’t want to believe that because if they can put these labels on me, then they have a living, breathing human being upon whom they can take out their anger about inequality and injustice.”

One of the angry people seeking out well known names to castigate is Elizabeth. Calling out potentially controversial opinions is a means to garner attention on social media. She uses two Twitter handles, the one that keeps her identity hidden being particularly vitriolic with tweets that sometimes go viral.

Beverley, meanwhile, is working on her latest book while missing her handsome young Ukrainian lover and attempting to look after his tortoise. Absorbed as she is in her own dramas, she assumes her grown children – still living in the parental home and enjoying generous monthly allowances – are getting by fine. With each member of the family making use of the many apps on their smartphones, there is only limited in-person interaction.

The story being told starts well, slows down a little but then picks up and maintains a good pace. Given Boyne’s difficulties with his previous book, I at first questioned the risk he was taking introducing a trans woman as the subject of his first troublesome tweet. It then became clear that what is being explored is the challenge of mentioning any potentially controversial subject publicly. I am told that in real life there actually exist people who spend their time scrolling social media feeds to find someone well known to be outraged at. I had no idea shitstorms were so orchestrated.

Side threads in the unfolding plot bring to the fore how certain subjects can be poked for fun – perhaps in bad taste but generally ignored – while others carry a real risk of attack from the ‘Permanently Outraged of Twitter’ who are portrayed as living for the orgasmic power surge of having their victim ‘cancelled’. By creating protagonists who are in many ways flawed, Boyne demonstrates that it isn’t so much behaviour that is being policed but rather the use of a well known name that can be milked to promote a cause. Truth is unimportant when attention can be caught.

As the story approaches its denouement, the many ill thought out antics of each member of the Cleverley family are brought home to roost. The varied threads start to make sense as the gilded discover they too must face consequences. What had seemed all important is revealed as vacuous, although with money no problem their reckoning could be much worse.

I enjoyed this tale for the witty exchanges and the forthright unmasking of the bullying nature of cancel culture. Boyne may have been driven to leave social media by the furore created around his supposed views, but if staying on message is the only acceptable conversation, critical thinking and listening will become lost skills, to the detriment of all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Book Review: Hashtag Good Guy With A Gun

hashtag good guy

“Part of the reason he’d never talked to girls was because they all seemed to think they were better than him. It was bad enough guys thought they were better than him, but when girls looked down on him it just seemed to hurt more.”

Hashtag Good Guy With A Gun, by Jeff Chon, is a darkly humorous satire on ideas of masculinity in the America that voted for Donald Trump as their president. It opens four days before the 2016 Presidential Election. Scott Bonneville, a high school English teacher currently out of work due to a sexual misdemeanour, enters a chain pizza restaurant with plans to expose a paedophile ring rumoured to operate out of the premises basement. Unexpectedly, he encounters an armed holdup and shoots the gunman dead. The media labels him a hero, a situation milked by his legal representative. Scott harbours many delusions, not least of which involves his unrequited love for Lisa, a woman who dumped him.

“Maybe he wasn’t a very good listener. Maybe if he’d only asked her about her experience, he could have comforted her, showed her what a compassionate and kind boyfriend he was.”

Scott admires Lisa’s looks, especially her breasts, and focuses his time and energy when they are together on getting her to have sex with him. He can’t stop himself correcting her when she comments on issues using arguments Scott knows to be flawed. This irritates her. Scott believes that if he were wrong in the way she so often is he would be fine with being corrected, it’s just that he never is.

Lisa’s son, Blake, was instrumental in the couple’s breakup. Blake was angry at the way his peers at school treated him but could see no way to improve matters other than to take the abuse without complaint. His teachers showed little interest in what they regarded as a slow-witted, smelly, uninspiring boy when they had potential sportsmen and scholars to nourish. All this changes when Blake moves school and befriends Walt, who introduces him to the Company of Men. Blake starts pushing weights and taking care of his appearance, living by the code laid down for the brotherhood who offer a channel for his negative energy.

“The men in the room especially liked watching the males cry, those bearded gender traitors who’d sacrificed their manhood in order to project a facade of virtue. They hated that facade, the men in the room. Thanks to RadFem, modern women had been taught to favor false virtue over strength. In turn, a generation of boys grew up to become weak-minded peacocks who displayed the feathers on their backsides rather than face forward like real men.”

Scott has a younger half-brother, Brian. Their father runs a financially successful doomsday church where they both spent formative years. When their father’s wife decides to leave the cult she takes only one of her adoptive sons with her – Scott. Neither boy can ever forgive her this choice.

Blake also blames his mother for the difficulties he faced growing up. Thanks to the Company of Men he can make sense of his hatred towards her.

“A man needs structure, because without structure, there was nothing to rebel against. And when a man can’t rebel, he becomes complacent, weak. How could he break down walls if none were provided for him?”

Alongside these characters are veterans suffering PTSD and a homeless man struggling with delusions that make him believe he and others are occupied by uncanny beings, possibly ghosts. The survivors of the pizza restaurant holdup play supporting roles, as do the family of Blake’s estranged father. As their backstories and interactions are revealed, the reader is treated to a droll tale of man’s gullibility, stupidity and senseless conviction of wisdom and rightness in the age of internet propaganda and conspiracy theories.

The women in the story play supporting roles that highlight how delusional many of the men remain whatever their experiences. The story is not one of man-hating or feminism. Rather, it is a satire on how hard done by certain men feel because the women they lust after choose not to sleep with them.

“You know what superpower I’d like to have?” he said “The power to make people see the things they’ve done. To make them really understand how they’ve affected things.”

After the election come days of reckoning. Blake and Brian each seek revenge on those they believe wronged them.

“Of course, there were still people with smiles on their faces, people who’d run into neighbors or relatives, still hoping for the kind of consideration they’d refused others for the past eight years.”

Trump’s unexpected victory is regarded as an opportunity to burn down assumptions that have festered and led to the RadFem mess the Company of Men resent and now hope will lose influence. Although masculinity is a key thread, there are multiple layers to peel back in what is a biting depiction of modern America. The traditional family setup does not come out of this well, despite being the bedrock on which many of the ideas fostered by the Company of Men rest.

In many ways this is a discomfiting read due to its recognisable portrayal of men who blame others for their personal shortcomings and lack of emotional intelligence. The inconsistencies and contradictions in their arguments – their blinkered beliefs – are easily mocked, but what cannot be denied is the damage wreaked, not least on themselves.

The story is also engaging and entertaining. The author has struck a fine balance between depicting a brand of masculinity as performatively toxic alongside revealing the innate personal anxieties such beliefs mask.

An original take-down of contemporary issues where underlying causes are too often dismissed as unworthy of attention. A story that stands on its dark humour as well as literary merits, but which offers more for those willing to question why men such as these feel so desperately hard done by.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sagging Meniscus