About halfway through Meatspace I was struggling a little bit. There were some great observations about the absurdities of modern life and the dangers of an addiction to social media, but where was the story? Or more, was I missing the story because this wasn't the book for me?
I like to flatter myself that I know about technology but the older I get the harder it is to remain convinced ( watching my 15 year neighbour reconfigure my 8 year old's Minecraft today revealed rather too much of my own ignorance). I like to think I know about social media, but frankly I use Facebook only to keep half an eye on what old friends are doing and, after a brain frazzling three weeks where I tried to read everything that everyone I followed on Twitter was saying, I now just check in occasionally, realise I've missed something interesting and then worry about what it was.
Kitab Balasubramanyam, the central character of Meatspace, is not like this. He comes out in a cold sweat if he is more than six inches from his phone; he tweets everything he eats. He lives in cyberspace rather than the meatspace that gives the novel its title. Social media and his online persona has taken him over. It's why his girlfriend left him on his own. It's why he never writes any words for his difficult second novel. Yes Kitab is a writer. He's also, as you may be able to tell from his name, of Indian descent.
The novel is heavily centred around three strands of life I don't know much about: Social media, the life of an aspiring author and being Indian in modern Britain (I'm as white Anglo Saxon as they come; my cultural references are terrible food, sunburn and forming an orderly line). The insecure author continually trying to compose witty tweets is rather lost on me. Apart from the fact I never write anything, I'd quite like to be a writer. Meatspace does not sell the experience. The obsession with staying connected also passed me by. There just wasn't a thread I could hold onto and say, 'Yes, I get this.' Yet at no time did I consider giving up. There was enough quality to keep me reading, even if I wasn't fully engaged. I'm glad I did. Meatspace is one of those novels that appears to be superficially about one thing before twisting and becoming deeper than I could ever have imagined.
The story essentially has two strands. The main one is the life of Kitab and his status obsession (a phrase that had a different meaning a decade ago). When he gets a friend request from the only person on Facebook with the same name as him, he thinks nothing of ignoring it. When Kitab2 turns up on his doorstep he proves a little harder to avoid. The second strand is in the form of blog posts from Kitab's larger than life, alpha male older brother. Aziz has travelled to New York, to meet his doppelgänger. So as one brother leaves on a quest for adventure, another arrives with almost the same intentions.
The novel is filled with great observations about the absurdities of social media, and the pitfalls of letting it rule your life. Greater than that though are its questions about identity. More and more novels are coming through about the duality of cyberspace persona and meatspace reality. As social media becomes more entrenched and people spend more time hooked up, which personality is true? There are lots of subtle touches here, such as comments on Aziz's blog that poke and probe author reliability and anonymity online. When the relationship between Kitab and Kitab2 goes sour, further questions are posed about the nature of personality and its potential for subversion on the internet.
None of this quite coalesces until the novel's final chapters. Before that it's merely diverting. Only with the final reveal do we see Shukla's full intentions, and realise just how good Meatspace is. In addition to the social media stuff, there's lots interesting comment on the importance of family in a fast-moving world. The fragility of self-esteem when nobody really knows you, and just how difficult it is to write a half decent novel. Meatspace will not suit all tastes but if your interested in the effect of social media on the societies it's supposed to connect, then you would do well to pick up a copy. Funny, intelligent and more than a little bit sad, Meatspace is well worth a look.
I had a real love/hate experience with this book. It was brilliant in parts, mundane and cringy in others.
Meatspace is what is known as the ‘real world’, as opposed to the ‘virtual one’. It’s one where the protagonist, Kitab, forgets he exists, spending most of his time trying to impress and create a persona online. He is a failed writer, and is obsessed with what others are saying about him on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and any other online space. As he himself admits, ‘The first and last thing I do every day is see what strangers are saying about me’. His girlfriend leaves him because he is not often in the room, at least not mentally, too busy checking his phone to see how his online persona is doing. It’s an addiction that Kitab finds hard to break, but one that can lead him into a whole lot of trouble, particularly when his namesake turns up from India and decides to appropriate Kitab’s online presence for himself. This is when the novel becomes very funny and almost surreal. The ‘real’ (original) Kitab then has to deal with his doppelganger who has run amok both in the real and virtual world.
We then have Kitab’s brother, Aziz, to contend with. Aziz keeps a blog to which we are party, and the blog is a substantial part of the book. I don’t even commit to reading blogs in the real world, so it was a bit odd to have to read one as part of a novel, and in order to keep the story going and keep up with the plot. Et voila! There are some real moments between Kitab and his father, both touching and hilarious. Kitab’s dad is more of a hit with the ladies than his son, but when he starts asking for lurve advice, Kitab finds it a step too far. I have to say, I did find some of the book a bit uncomfortable and juvenile, for example, the orgy scenes (don’t ask!) but maybe I’m just a prim middle-aged woman!
Overall, this book works well on many layers. It is a story about relationships in the real and online world; how both can become blurred- how we can forget which world we are living in and what is real and what isn’t. It is a profound book that looks into how we are changing ourselves and our human contact, perhaps sacrificing them for the sake of a virtual persona. To an extent, it is also a book about loneliness. Shukla is a very talented writer, and this is an original and humorous if reflective and poignant novel about how we live today.
on 1 May 2015
We enter Kitab's life at a time when things could be going better - he's wasting his money, failing to write, and most troubling is that he spends too much time obsessing over chutney. As the story progresses, Kitab and his brother Aziz play out parallel but unique experiences as Aziz tracks down his internet doppelganger and Kitab is befriended by another Kitab Balasubramanyam online and then in real life.
The name of the book is perfect - meatspace, a term used to mean real life as opposed to cyberspace, is at once suitable and sort of uncomfortable - which is arguably reflective of the content. As the stories of the two brothers continue the fun humour of the first half of the book takes a weirder and at times chilling turn as we learn the horrors of identity theft.
The stories of both brothers are immediately engaging, as are all the characters who have some real depth to them. The characters are so well drawn that it is easy to feel that large chunks of this story and those inhabiting it are in some way biographical. Both Kitab's are likeable in their own ways, Aziz is the crazy friend or relative we all know, and the background characters - especially Kitab's dad and Hayley - feel real and react appropriately. I was really impressed with both the way women and the way Kitab thinks of women, comes across - it feels real and it doesn't offend. You get the impression both Shukla and Kitab are on the side of women, which is refreshing.
Kitab is totally relatable to creative types, but especially writers - many things he mentions are things I for one have done: working from gdocs, being distracted online when I should be writing, agonising over introducing yourself as a "writer" - it also made me paranoid that I might not have been signing my books on the correct page! Through Kitab and his writer-related thoughts and events Shukla illustrates well the writing/marketing balance (or lack thereof) of a writer in the social media age.
At it's core this is a commentary on social media and a reminder that we need to be present in our real lives rather than "living" them online and building real relationships rather than assuming we know people from their online personas. That said, it isn't ham-fisted and overdone, because it is literally played out - this is a modern day moral tale - and most of us can relate to it.
The story is fast paced and engaging, the first book in a long time that I have had to drag myself away from to shower/sleep/go to work and I was left feeling satisfied with the pay off. I'm not going to ruin the ending, but want to say I was really impressed by the little clues throughout that the reader can put together to guess how this all goes down at the end. It gave the book an extra layer and also added momentum - willing the reader on to the point where I would describe this as "unputdownable". It's wrapped up in a bittersweet ending with Kitab learning the lessons he needed to learn, and hopefully passing them onto the reader too.
I must admit that I have never come across the word 'Meatspace' before, not surprising really as I don't read cyberpunk novels or spend time on the kind of online forums where the term is likely to be used. However, being fully aware of the term cyberspace I just thought 'perhaps it just means the opposite, the real world' and read on from that assumption.
I found it quite hard to get into and this may be the case for anyone who spends their lives in meatspace with only the odd foray into the cyber world, but once I had adjusted to the language I found the novel quite addictive and very funny. There are 2 narrative threads, first Kitab, he is an author struggling to write his second novel and seems to spend most of his time online, his life changes when Kitab2 arrives on his doorstep from India. This guy with the same name has been trying to friend him on Facebook but Kitab constantly ignores him. The second thread is a blog 'Azizwillkillyou', Aziz is his brother who travels across the pond to New York to find his doppelganger, that is someone he found online with a bowtie tattoo. His blog recounts his adventures. The 2 narrative threads complement each other perfectly.
It is a book about our modern age and the obsession with facebook, twitter, blogs and the rest and emphasises the fact that authors are almost obliged to have an online presence to publicise themselves and their work. Initially I did wonder if I would be able to finish 'Meatspace' but I am so glad that I persevered past the first few chapters, particularly when I reached the point when the entire tone of the novel changes which made me think back to everything I had read up to that point.
I read 'Meatspace' courtesy of Netgalley and Harper Collins but I will be purchasing this novel so that I can read it again as a finished copy. Recommended for geeks and non-geeks alike, for authors struggling with combining writing with promotion and anyone looking for an intelligent and thought provoking book to make them laugh and cry.
on 20 May 2015
Kitab Balasubramanyam has a problem with technology. He can’t leave it alone. He fills voids in his life with social media. But social media cannot teach you social mores.
This novel put me in mind of a Greco-Roman tragedy. Family is everything, nothing. Modern times: self fights technology. There is crossover, there is confusion.
The protagonist has an angel and a devil in his life. Both have aspects of the other entity.
At first I was fighting through the crude ‘dudes’ and endless ‘cools’. I’m not sure at which point I realised this was a cunning book, that Shukla was dealing us a deck of selves. Teaching his readers a few lessons in life, should they wish to seek them out and learn from them.
The humour in the book is Shukla’s perverse perceptions of the behaviour of others, added to the maleness of the plot, giving the slightly unwashed sense of a teenage bedroom. You can read his words and recognise all that is wrong in your own tech-obsessed life. Smirk at the similarities with his characters, or you can look behind to the complexities of human relationships that will always exist, be you Bacchus or Balasubramanyam.
I enjoyed it. It was worthwhile to read something different.
on 2 August 2014
HAVE you ever tried going a couple of days without Facebook or Twitter? Not easy, is it, switching off from cyberspace where your real identity is different, possibly out of all recognition from the real one? In cyberspace you can craft the perfect quip, withhold information, build an image.
In ‘meatspace’, the world beyond your Internet hook-up, life can be dull, tricky, even unpleasant. This is where the book’s anti-hero Kitab is, spending his life on the Net doing anything but writing the book to follow his first flop. He’s a loser, but the online him is way more exciting.
Out of the blue someone with the same improbable name (his surname is Balasubramanyam) turns up and wants to be real-life friends. Is it identity theft taken to the next level or an opportunity for reality to get a foothold in his (and by suggestion our) life.
Told in a sharp, witty, up-to-the-minute tongue, Meatspace is a damn good laugh…possibly at our expense.
The fact that I had to ask my husband what 'meatspace' is will tell you something about me. So while I don't share the protagonist's obsession with all things internet and cyber, I was aware enough to understand the references, the humour, and the irony of the story.
I saw this as a book mocking all things online, for readers who probably spend a lot of their free time online. But so I don't sound hypocritical, I admit that I read this book on an iPhone, using an App, updating my progress on a reading website, and am now reviewing it online for public appraisal. I'm not calling kettles names. It's mocking the cyber-world by showing how reliant we have become on it, how it can replace real life for some, how the distinction between the two can even blur.
It's very, very smart. It's very, very relevant. And it's very, very funny. Asian Brit Kitab Balasubramanyam has published his first book to... no acclaim whatsoever. He's been dumped. He's been fired. His income is fast dwindling. He lives with his more relaxed brother Aziz and sees his born-again-bachelor father once a week for dinner, where his dad's latest dates are related. Two events occur that rock the fragile foundation of Kitab's (mostly online) world, one where he posts carefully thought-out Tweets and counts his 'likes'. Aziz decides to get a tattoo, and discovering that the only bow-tie tattoo owner looks jjust like him, heads to American to track him down. While he's away, the only other online Kitab Balasubramanyam attempts to 'friend' Kitab on Facebook, and then shows up at his door. What is he after?
It's not as if we look down on Kitab and Aziz, slave to the hourly updates, unable to last a conversation without checking their phones for emails and Tweets to respond to. I imagine almost anyone reading this will feel a pull of familiarity, possibly one of guilt, unlikely one of smugness.
Kitab knows this about himself: "I used to read so much... I'd struggle to eat with a knife and fork or with my hands as I navigated sentences on a page. Now that's all been replaced with thinking of arch things to tweet, twitpic'ing my lunch or making up overheard conversations that might make people laugh." He knows he's been sucked in, but can't help himself.
It's funny because it's true. But does that make it sad as well? I assume Shukla is trying to show us the darker side of online living, and he does this very wittily with various characters. Mitch is a friend determined to stay in the 'meatspace' world of real people and interactions. Kitab and Aziz represent the generation who've grown up with technology and embraced it. The reader can see it is to their detriment. In a sex scene, Kitab realises his porn viewing has altered his experience of sex in the real world: "It doesn't fee like the videos I spend days watching. There's too much kissing. Everything flows from one act to another. We don't jump-cut from kiss to blowjob... to her willing face." We live edited and fast-cut lives online. Will this make our real lives pale in comparison?
Aziz's story adds to the issue. Kitab doesn't want him to leave (he's become agoraphobic since his recent setback and relies on his brother somewhat). Aziz is off to discover his bow-tie-tattoo doppelgänger. Why? Because "I need to populate my blog with content... I just need something to write about. A proper adventure." We see his narrative through blog updates (and the comments they solicit) and wonder just how much of the online world represents reality.
There's a lot more to the story than this. Kitab's own doppelgänger plays a huge role in the book and also shows us in one hilarious chapter how whatever we put online is then no longer under our control, the tiniest thing can have huge ramifications, it can't be taken back.
Just when you think you can compare this book to something else - the Joseph Gordon-Levitt film 'Don Jon' maybe, the book throws a curve-ball in the last act (one I'd suspected but was still stunned by). It's satisfying, sad, and makes you rethink everything you've read up to that point.
You'll laugh at this, you'll recognise yourself, you'll refuse to recognise yourself, you'll wonder how it all fits together. And then you'll see.
A great read. One I'd want older teens to read actually, to discuss in English lessons. Full of usable quotes, it's a carefully constructed piece that I really hope does well. Brilliant.
Review of a Netgalley advance copy.
on 23 July 2014
In this instant gratification online world we live in, Meatspace feels bizarrely slow to get going. The first 20% of the book (yes, Kindle tells me percentages) is a tough read in many respects.
Once you get through that, the pace quickens and as more characters are incorporated into the plot, the split focus just works and builds to a crescendo. It's almost sequenced like a well-crafted album.
It's a slow burn but rewarding - the final section of Meatspace is simply stunning, transforming it from simply quirky to a must-read. It was a risky strategy, but an unforgettable one worth taking.
on 3 July 2014
Very funny book about modern life with a really clever change of direction and really sweet ending.
on 30 July 2014
A blurb compares Meatspace to the work of Douglas Coupland, Junot Diaz, Chuck Palahniuk and Jennifer Egan, but their readers will be disappointed by the book. Diaz and Egan in particular are two of the greatest prose stylists working today: unfortunately, Nikesh Shukla is simply not as good a writer as them.
Meatspace charts the life of Kitab Balasubramanyam who has been dumped by his girlfriend and fired from his job. Kitab is a writer. His first novel came out on a small press to muted acclaim. He is struggling with his second. He is also addicted to social networks on the internet to the detriment of 'meatspace' (real life). Things get interesting when he comes into contact with his online doppelganger Kitab 2, a randy namesake who enters his life and attempts to steal his online identity, causing chaos along the way. In counterpoint, we get excerpts from Kitab's brother Aziz's blog. Aziz has travelled to New York to meet up with his own online double, in this case a man with the same bow-tie tattoo.
Much has been made of the novel's themes of alienation in an age where digital interaction is close to supplanting actual face-to-face contact. But the problem with writing a zeitgeist novel is that the zeitgeist is there already. Everyone knows we spend too much time on the internet. Everyone knows that our addiction to Twitter and Facebook can ultimately endanger our ability to socialise. The issue has been discussed ad infinitum - you only need pick up a copy of the Metro or Cosmpolitan to find an article about it. Whether a 300-page novel that adds little to the discussion other than to describe it in minute detail it is required is questionable.
Apart from Kitab, and his father, the characters in Meatspace feel contrived, as though they were brainstormed on a whiteboard for a BBC3 comedy series. Kitab 2 is amusing, but he is a one-note caricature. Aziz is caraaazy and street but little more. Hayley (other than being, like, really really beautiful) is bland, and her attraction to the romantically awkward, non-athletic junk food-guzzler Kitab is implausible. In real life he would have languished in the friendzone, fapping his irrelevant member to her author picture in his malodorous bedroom. Unsurprisingly, the most affecting scenes occur between Kitab and his Dad at the book's conclusion.
The narrative pacing is handled well throughout: the big problem is Shukla's prose. Cliches and failed attempts to twist language blight nearly every page. Kitab shrugs 'the barest of shoulders'. A memory is 'consigned' to drunkenness. Tired colloquialisms like 'public displays of affection', 'share a moment' and 'go me' are used without irony. An orgy is described with stunning originality as being 'like the last days of Rome.' Our male narrator describes Hayley's fingers as being like 'those bendy rubber separators you use to paint your toenails with' - does he use them? A blonde girl wears a 'navel jumper' - navy, surely? In the manner of a pulp melodrama, Kitab's father's 'steely glare still holds [him] in its gaze'. A cuddle is 'thick and spindly.' Amassing Facebook friends is 'addictive', 'like heroin,' the narrator helpfully qualifies, although there is no suggestion anywhere that he has ever used it.
This may sound like nit-picking, but ill-considered language like this was jarring and got in the way of my enjoyment of the book. This is not something I would experience reading Egan, Diaz or indeed Gary Shteyngart, who also contributed an exceptionally kind blurb. The book at times feels as though it was composed to be read out to live audiences. What works at readings doesn't necessarily work as well on the page, though.
I was agnostic about the twist at the end. I won't give anything away here, but I felt that Kitab's rather flat final explanation of the truth of the situation detracted from a revelation that might have had more impact handled differently.
As stated, the final father-son scenes are affecting, and it is rather a shame that inferior execution mars what could otherwise have been an amiable and reasonably amusing book. There probably is a great novel to be written about social networking - unfortunately, for me at least, Meatspace isn't it.