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.