The Paper Eater Paperback – 3 Jul 2006
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Science fiction is an unhelpful label but a useful genre. Liz Jensen's third novel, The Paper Eater, is undeniably SF. It has an artificial landmass; a computer that runs the entire country--Atlantica--but is only "the size of a home refrigerator"; and a social landscape in which new management and consumer languages are developed. With all the trappings of SF, this novel is at heart a damning and wild satire of consumerism run riot.
On Atlantica, the artificial island that has based its success on accepting any and all waste from all over the world, everyone is a consumer. Libertycare, with its monolithic Head Office and automated Hotline Consumer Controls runs everything, keeping the customer happy no matter what:
"What Libertycare has done ... is to stop randomness in its tracks, by imposing a system of fairness that's respected worldwide ... The life of a typical Atlantican customer is not a string of random events. It is an incentive scheme in action..."Harvey Kidd and Hannah Park are both emotionally stunted victims of "the death of politics" and, along with a strong cast of real and unreal characters, are manoeuvred by projected consumer trends and the wily, artificially sexy Facilitator General into becoming scapegoats for the system. However people, as Harvey observes, can sometimes win by being stupid. As the appearance of Utopia starts to fade, criminals and even geology itself return to haunt the terrible Paradise. --John Shire --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
'Dazzling ... Liz Jensen is one of the few living writers who can be described as genuinely original' Matt Thorne 'Bitingly funny, unsettling and touching' Sunday Times 'Sparkling ... sharp, funny and richly imagined, this is as timely a warning about rampant consumerism as Orwell's 1984 was about state control' Sunday Express 'An exuberant fable that is a million miles from the current slew of relationship novels. Liz Jensen has more invention and wit in her little finger than all of their creators put together' IndependentSee all Product description
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Harvey Kidd owns a family business. Trouble is, his family doesn't really exist. Still, their fraudulent practices keep Harvey happy and solvent. With the advent of online trading, the Hogg family business grows and grows. Since everything is done automatically, nobody checks to see just how many offshore accounts the Hoggs have. Harvey still has other needs however, and falls in lust and gets married to Gwynneth. Everything goes swimmingly at first, until Harvey has to admit that he's an orphan, his family isn't actually genuine, and that he's a fraudster. Gwynneth seems to accept all this, apart from Harvey's unnatural urges regarding his imaginary mother and his voluptuous teenage sister, Lola (as in Lolita?). To Harvey's delight, however, Gwynneth becomes pregnant. Maybe a real daughter will be enough to release him from his Hogg fantasy? But Gwynneth decides to take revenge, a decision that will have repercussions for the Kidds for years to come. Harvey is thrust once more into the welcoming arms of the Hoggs, embroiled in his imaginary family made up from composite photos, divided from the concrete world. Still, Harvey lives on the porous isle of Atlantica, the very ground is designed to soak up all the pollution of the world - not even nuclear waste is turned away from Atlantica's ports.
Years later, Harvey is now a prisoner on the Sea Hero, destined to return to Atlantica in time for Liberty Day. It's an appointment that fills him with foreboding. Never the most open of people, Harvey has to find something that will keep his mouth shut, in fear that the other prisoners would lynch him, should they discover his secret. Instead, he indulges in the art of papier-mache, recycling pulp newspaper into art. But his bunkmate is condemned to death, and so has special dispensation to ask Harvey probing questions. Harvey is forced to relate the whole sorrowful tale, to speak of his lost love, the socially inhibited Hannah Park, and of a conspiracy at the very heart of Libertycare...
The Paper Eater is an excellent retail satire, with a killing portrait of how 'customer care' and aromatherapy might go too far. There did seem to be one factual error though: Wesley Pike says that the game of Snakes and Ladders originated from China, whereas all the sources I found say it derived from India. Papier-mache certainly seems to have been exported from China though, where paper was first manufactured. Liz Jensen is a brilliant, original writer, with very much her own quite readable style. The satire is hard, fast, and witty. The Paper Eater is a novel about how retail technology can dehumanise you, by presenting consumer choice as liberty, and docility as happiness. How is it then, that both Harvey and Hannah find the need to strive for freedom against Liberty? Is the death of politics and automatic justice necessarily a good thing? Like George Orwell's 1984 (except for the rats), Liz Jensen extrapolates the present to the not too distant future, and provides a consuming critique of consumerism at its most hungry.
The underlying philosophy - the power of large organisations, the ability to ignore how certain human activity continues to destroy the fragile balance of nature on our planet, the idea that even apparently 'flawed' individuals might still be able to hope for fulfilment - is certainly there in good measure. However, for me, it was basically interesting holiday reading - and nothing wrong with that!
However, it has also led me to want to order the other titles by the same author, which must surely be a measure of the underlying impression made by my holiday reading.
Harvey Kidd is a 'damaged' orphan, and we follow his story and his imaginary family, and then his fragile relationship with another frail personality, Hannah, who believes she has a 'block' which prevents her from socialising. Jensen renders this relationship beautifully, along with a twisting plot and the underpinning surreal parable of consumerism and 'people's choice' rhetoric. A warning shot across the bows of our future.
This is a seriously funny book for those who like their humour black, but it also succeeds in getting a serious message across. Although there's a comic book feel, the characters are real enough you care what happens to them. Highly recommended.
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