Meatspace defined as the physical world, as opposed to cyberspace is the second novel from author Nikesh Shukla; the writer behind Coconut Unlimited which was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award so certainly no dilettante when it comes to the realms of fiction writing. His second novel could be described as a satire and a poke in the eye for the new social media generation. Its an exploration of the excesses of being 24-7 ” connected” through that modern day monster, we call social media and how it is increasingly becoming the currency for measuring one`s own popularity and defining the way we connect to people.
Novelist Kitab Balasubramanyam is a writer sandwiched in that hellish place between his first novel which suffered a failure to launch and writing his follow-up. He is experiencing something of a second album syndrome as he tries to write his second book, grappling for inspiration from social media and becoming a serial tweeter in the process. He finds life has an annoying tendency of getting in the way as he tries to contend with the breakup with his girlfriend among other things.
Shukla really gave you a sense of what it must be like for a writer shuffling from day to day, listless, and searching for the illusive someone or something to be the lightening rod for his creative energy. The character just comes off the page and is so well drawn thanks to Shukla`s deftly constructed prose.
There are sections which read like a deliciously black (ish) style of comedy with Kitab`s own day caught in a groundhog day. Shukla seems to tip his hat in appreciation to the comedy legend Tony Hancock. He beautifully taps into this Hancockian comedy-vein and there is more of the same in the form of his relationship with his father, giving us more comedy fodder.However Shukla seemed to momentarily dangerously tread the fine line between character and caricature but fleshes out his father`s character just enough to make you warm to him. We learn that his father is a widower who survived some dark years following the death of his wife and now seems to be having a second wind in life. A serial dater with a penchant for attractive women who seems to score more female attention and more Facebook likes(70% more just to add insult to injury) then his own son. His father clearly seemed to be far more seasoned in the art of seduction then Kitab. His dad`s lion- heart courage and seize the day attitude left you wondering whether the father and son were even actually biologically related.
There is a moment in the book when Shukla unexpectedly receives an email from his Dad who usually leans more to texting. He finds a forwarded email from a woman on a dating site declaring her intention to meet his son. The cringe dial is turned right up when his father writes in bold “kitab son wen u free?!! Touching and cringing in equal measure. Infact far from being a typical father he is atypical and not the least bit avuncular either.
Shukla illustrates the absurdity of social media and how its all pervasive element seeps into our daily lives; dictating the way we engage with others with some light comic touches. We are introduced to his online friend Cara who he rarely sees and lives just 45 minutes away. Yet she is annoyed that they missed their Skype dinner… yes you heard me ! Skype dinners ! and whilst they aren’t exactly separated by rough and uninhabitable jungles or terrains, the implicit rule is that they don`t meet up unless its on Skype.
Rach is the ex- girlfriend who occasionally gets a look-in. I personally would have liked to have seen the character given much more page-time. It would have been interesting to have been given a first-person perspective or ring-side seat to viewing Kitab`s mad, bad and crazy world. Whilst she was apparently unfashionably unversed in the black art (to some) in managing social media and yearned for a simpler time before mobile phones, (the very antithesis of Kitab), she would have undoubtedly given the novel everyman appeal .
Shukla demonstrates he is not just about scoring laughs though and adds a layer of sensitivity to the story. There is a lovely literary motif in the form of the left-over chutneys in a fridge, reminders of better times when they were both deliriously taken with coupledom.
We are eventually introduced to another central character in the form of Kitab2; Kitab`s own doppelganger who finally catches up with him in person after a series of Facebook friend requests. He is a living apparition, the embodiment of everything nightmarish about social media all rolled into one, a sort of ghosts of all Facebooks past. Against his best efforts to unfriend ,unfollow, and block him, he soon realises that the situation is complicated. Kitab2 outstays his welcome and becomes a permanent fixture in Kitab`s life, desperately wanting to ape his own lifestyle, believing it will somehow allow him to be more successful with women.
There is of course Kitab`s brother Aziz who goes on a quest to find his own doppelganger and chart his journey through his own blog entries which prove to be very popular, much to Kitab`s annoyance. Whilst lightly amusing, I thought that it was an unnecessary distraction from a good story. It seemed that the character had been introduced for comedic effect only. However not to post a spoiler alert, his character does however become pivotal towards the end.
You might be forgiven for thinking it`s a zeitgeist novel but you would be mistaken. The book never aspires to be a all you wanted to know book or a looking- glass on the online generation. Instead Shukla delivers a novel that is more about the foibles of human nature, the bitter-sweet tragi-comedy, that is life and the vagaries of those signed up for life to the 140 character brigade. It also delivers a cautionary tale of how social media becomes the way we socially engage and the currency for measuring popularity as well.
Shukla demonstrates a wonderful eye for detail and gives you a warm, fuzzy at the edges story, guaranteed to have you laughing out loud at times and at others, nodding a knowing smile, over his acute observations of life, love, and everything between. Never soporific. Meatspace is a hard to put down read which will have you reaching for the next page and then the next until you dissapointingly finish.
Meatspace is published by The Friday Project. Get it now at www.amazon.co.uk