I Hate The Internet – Jarett Kobek
Release Date: 03/11/16
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Pages: 290pp RRP: £12.99 (Hardback)
Kindle edition available here (£6.64)
It’s hard for me to resist a novel that claims to skewer such topics as Silicon Valley, the writing and philosophy of Ayn Rand, the influence of Science Fiction writers, the practices of the comic book industry, ‘elaborately named hippies practicing cruelty on goats’, and death threats on social media. I Hate the Internet does this, and more. It’s also the only novel I’ve ever read that came with a trigger warning in the preface.
When the mildly famous former comic book artist Adeline starts receiving rape and death threats on Twitter, so begins a story that jumps back and forth between the 1990s and present day, and between a cast of fascinating characters in San Francisco and New York. They inhabit what Kobek insists is a ‘bad novel’ – which stands in contrast to a ‘good novel’. When this dichotomy is explored, we’re told that a ‘bad novel’ features possibly fictitious people talking about potentially fictitious things, whilst a ‘good novel’ is a concept invented by the CIA to promote a particular cultural strand via the American literary novel. It’s a weird contrast, but Kobek takes it, runs with it, and ultimately makes it work.
The path to the publication of the novel has been a bit of an odd one for Kobek. It eventually culminated in him establishing his own publishing house to self-publish the novel, before finding it being given a favourable review in the New York Times‘s art section. When discussing the novel, Kobek has noted his own hypocrisy. He notes that without the internet, the novel wouldn’t necessarily been as successful (oddly enough, over the course of the novel he also ends up ridiculing the very media outlets that promoted and sold his work). Intriguingly, Kobek takes this self-acknowledged hypocrisy and makes it a key feature of the narrative and reflects it in the actions of his characters expertly. It’s also clear that he has a deeply complex relationship with San Francisco as a city – simultaneously despising the hollow artifice, and yet drawn in by its unique charm. I was impressed in how he managed to convey this, all whilst preserving the wit that gives his writing such endearing charm.
The structure of the novel could potentially be a dividing point for its wider audience. At times it uses short paragraphs to make biting quips about subjects ranging from lifestyle choice to political theory. It almost mirrors the clickbait nature of a lot of contemporary online journalism – designed to be quickly consumed and moved on from. For some this could be an interesting structural device; for others, a minor irritant that makes it harder for them to build up momentum in their reading. I’d argue that this doesn’t really detract from the quality of the work, and most readers won’t be bothered by it.
There are moments that the angrier sections of the novel reminded of watching Bill Hicks when I was younger, particularly when its prose builds up momentum. Whilst he primarily focuses on four major companies and social media in general, Kobek reserves most of his ire for the hideous brand of libertarian ideology that’s infected the culture of Silicon Valley and its followers – culminating in an epic rant by one character toward the close of the novel, parodying the John Galt character from Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a frequent target for criticism in the work (and rightly so). Whilst doing this, Kobek focuses on characters both fictional and real. It’s here that his wit is at its sharpest, whether he’s targeting the venerated figures like Steve Jobs, or people like Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In, whom he describes as ‘the billionaire who worked for Facebook and thought that the way women who weren’t billionaires could get respect in the workplace was to act more like the men that disrespected them in the workplace’. The anger that Kobek saves for those topics and those individuals form the primary driving force in the narrative, and he channels it very effectively. It has no doubt been built up over the years he spent working for tech firms and as a user of tech in the earlier days of the internet. Where else would you find a reference to Slackware 1.0 in a contemporary work of fiction? That and an author who would make an exclusive preview for their novel for the ZX Spectrum?
Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. It’s rare that a book can make me laugh out loud in the way that I Hate the Internet did; it’s rarer still that I find myself having to photograph passages from the novel and send them to friends who will find them both funny and worryingly accurate. I can definitely recommend this novel, and I look forward to Kobek’s future work.