A Tale of Two Kitabs by Nikesh Shukla

Meatspace-web-readyAbout 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 fucking 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.

Many Thanks to Madeline Toy for sending me a copy of this book 

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