Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla (The Friday Project – July 2014)
Other than the diabolical Twitter, of course, the great nemesis of reading and writing is the TV Series Box Set—particularly Netflix all-episodes-uploaded-at-once series binge-watching. Therefore it is a great compliment to the writer that I finished this book before I finished the new season of Orange is the New Black.
Kitab Balasubramanyam is a young author attempting to write his second novel under difficult personal circumstances—his girlfriend has left him, he’s lost his job and his first book is not selling well. When his more outgoing brother, Aziz, goes to New York to track down his google-image doppelganger (The Man with the Bow Tie Tattoo), Kitab holes up in his flat and retreats behind his digital persona, to the detriment of his relationships with real people. ‘The first and last thing I do everyday is see what strangers are saying about me,’ Kitab begins.
For those of you unfamiliar with the lingo ‘meatspace’ is real life as opposed to online life—'analogue’ rather than ‘digital’. As revolting as this sounds, real life can seem bloody and messy in comparison to the illusion of predictability, clarity and control that an online persona offers. Kitab’s attachment to his online life is not just about procrastination or introversion though. It is also an escape. It is tempting to imagine online existence as a safe space, but then a second Kitab Balasubramanyam turns up and starts messing with Kitab’s life in both arenas and he’s forced to find some way of re-entering meatspace to claim his life back.
The book has some very funny moments. Shukla treads a fine line between reality and parody—but internet reality is often stranger than fiction and this book is a very convincing representation of what contemporary life is actually like: ‘Amazon recommends I buy the book I wrote,’ Kitab writes. I related to the character a little too much—as will anyone who works from home and relies on Twitter for their daytime social interaction. The book is not as bloodless as parody though—there are some quite heartfelt moments and Shukla writes Kitab’s sense of loneliness and isolation very well:
I tweet: ‘Feet hurt. Too much bogling last night. #boglingrelatedinjuries’
This is a lie. I was in bed by 10 last night. I had 4 beers on an empty stomach. Felt pissed and irritated, shouted a lot in our front room about Rach and how I was better off without her and was put to bed by Aziz, who complained I was too drunk to take out on the town to find some trouble.
The humour also has a wry, self-referential quality; Shukla pokes a bit of fun at himself—Kitab’s more successful writer friend Hayley tells him:
They say your first book is about everyone you’ve met till you write it, and your second book is about writers and writing because that’s all you meet afterwards.
Kitab’s chapters are interspersed with Aziz’s blogs about his increasingly far-fetched adventures in New York. Shukla raises some interesting questions about the ways we record reality—the widespread delusion that unless something has been documented, tweeted and instagrammed, it didn’t actually happen; even though these representations of reality are often far from the truth. Not to mention the awful prospect that when we die our online persona will live on. Better go and tweak my Twitter profile.