There’s an old programmer joke that defines the user as the slowest peripheral device on any system. The wired-in future youth of MT Anderson’s Feed come close to realizing this idea, as their heads are saturated with an advertising-drenched data feed, coloring every aspect of consciousness so that the characters can seem little more than marketing constructs.
Anderson’s satiric vision is sometimes bitterly funny and sometimes just bitter. In the middle of a scene, two girls duck into a restaurant bathroom “because hairstyles had changed.” A later fashion trend that lasts almost a week involves beat-up retro styles with brand names like Kent State and WTO. One young woman can’t figure out why her new Stonewall sandals don’t fit (“they seem more like a man’s size 7”).I thought that a party entirely devoted to praising the virtues of Coca-Cola (in an attempt to win a free six-pack) was a heavy-handed touch, until I saw how many of my young Facebook friends “like” AT&T or McDonalds or Sony.
This kind of stuff doesn’t amount to a novel by itself, though; you need a disruption, an outsider. Enter Violet, with her weird hippie parents and her inferior and increasingly non-functional connection to the Feed. Our narrator, Titus, naturally falls for this exotic stranger, or falls as far as his crippling cultural environment allows him to.
The romance naturally includes an idyllic day in the country. As they drive out of the city, they notice an ad for a farm that takes visitors:
It was real peaceful. We walked along holding hands, and our elbows rubbed too. Violet wasn’t wearing sleeves, so I could see the little frowns made by her elbows. It smelled like the country; it was a filet mignon farm, all of it, and the tissue spread for miles around the paths where we were walking. It was like these huge hedges of red all around us, with these beautiful marble patterns running through them. They had these tubes, they were bringing the tissue blood, and we could see the blood running around up and down. It was really interesting—I like to see how things are made, and where they come from.
It was a perfect afternoon. They’d made part of it into a steak maze, for tourists…
This is nicely balanced. Sure, we are totally grossed out by the steak farm, but our revulsion does not keep us from enjoying Titus’ affection for Violet’s elbow-frowns and even his curiosity about where things come from. But as Violet’s Feed deteriorates (and her health with it), she becomes more and more alienated from Titus’ aggressively self-absorbed and vapid friends and family, and Titus must choose which side he’s on. The easy way out for the author would be for love to transform Titus into someone who shares our values and opinions; what actually happens is more plausible and much more frustrating for the reader.
At the end of the book, he gives Violet a summary of their story in movie-trailer format. I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that circumstances lend a wrenching irony to this version:
“It’s about this meg-normal guy, who doesn’t think about anything until one wacky day when he meets a dissident with a heart of gold. I said, “Set against the backdrop of America in its final days, it’s the high-spirited story of their love together. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, really heartwarming, and a visual feast.” I picked up her hand and held it to my lips. I whispered to her fingers, “Together, the two crazy kids grow, have madcap escapades, and learn an important lesson about love. They learn to resist the Feed. Rated PG-13. For language,” I whispered, “and mild sexual situations.”