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A Bad Creature That Likes Getting Worse
Two recent speculative novels by European writers provide new ways of imagining what life online is doing to our souls.
We Had to Remove This Post
by Hanna Bervoets, translated by Emma Rault
Harper, 144 pp., $17.99
by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell
Riverhead Books, 256 pages, $17
A DOORWAY OR A RIVER, a bad relationship or an act of violence you can’t look away from, a pet that’s also a stalker: The new subgenre of “social media novels” has found all kinds of metaphors for the experience of online communication. Some of these metaphors reassure as much as they unsettle. They suggest that life online is fundamentally similar to IRL, as intelligible as analog life—yes, okay, the more we check Twitter, the more we discover that we don’t understand other people; the more we communicate, the more we encounter our own opacity; the more we connect, the more we confront our isolation; but this is just what novels have always said about everything. Two recent European novels suggest that social media probably does make us worse—but only because we’re already the kind of bad creature that likes getting worse.
Hanna Bervoets’s We Had to Remove This Post (2021) is the more straightforward of the two books. This slim novel is framed as a letter from an ex–content cleaner—someone who removes violent, hateful, or pornographic material from social media posts—explaining why she won’t be joining a lawsuit against her former employer, Hexa. This frame story is so perfunctory as to be pointless. Bervoets withholds information even when the letter-writer would have no reason to delay, in order to create artificial suspense: “Once you know [why I left my job] . . . you probably won’t even want to help me anymore.” The novel’s smash-cut climax takes our antihero Kayleigh into thriller territory as she commits a serious crime in the hope of winning back her ex-girlfriend, a former coworker, but this genre move feels heavyhanded; it’s removed from the novel’s central concerns and its strengths.
Those strengths are summed up in the title. We Had to Remove This Post is a novel whose big idea is its setting. The best parts of the book are all about Kayleigh’s job: the voyeurism it evokes in others, as in the novel’s first line, “So what kinds of things did you see?”; the barroom camaraderie they share after work, where the edgelord slurs they toss around to prove they're not damaged make them look really damaged; the feeling that even talking about what you’ve seen will “soil” the air around you.
In the book as in life, gallows humor flourishes in the gaps between the most visceral human experiences and bureaucratic attempts to regulate how they are depicted: no blood; no sadism; accident videos are okay if they’re “comical” or “educational.” Users can’t say all Muslims are terrorists, because that insults Muslims, but they can say all terrorists are Muslims. “A video of someone flinging their cat out the window is only allowed if cruelty is not a motive; a photo of someone flinging their cat out the window is always allowed. . . . [A] naked child can only be shown if the image pertains to a news story, unless it’s about the Holocaust.”
There are moments when the exploration of Kayleigh’s work becomes preachy: Conspiracy theories and hatred of Jews seem to be thrown into this novel because it’s a social-media novel and those are social-media scourges. I don’t think Bervoets has much to say about these phenomena. But she genuinely has a lot to say about what psychologists call “secondary trauma,” the way encountering other people’s suffering can damage souls. Secondary trauma may be one of the novel’s strongest metaphors for the social-media experience: Like journalists, doctors, and cops, we may start out intending to discover truth or do some good, but what we see makes us callous and exhausted. The screen offers a new kind of helplessness, not protection. The disturbing image festers in the mind, becoming less and less intelligible (and therefore less dispatchable) the more we ply it with rules. All of this is a lot more viscerally true when your job is getting hit in the face with the worst of the internet; but maybe it’s somewhat true of all of us nowadays.
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And this cruel, subversive absurdity begins to seep out from the image, until the whole world amounts to the place where people post self-harm videos online, and we ourselves become simply the people who sit back and watch them. Early in the novel, Kayleigh’s ex manages to convince her that she has spent decades wrongly blaming herself for the death of her childhood pet, a hamster. Kayleigh’s inaction might not have caused the destruction of another life. By the end, when Kayleigh is trying to provide a parallel exculpation for her ex, the novel suggests that innocence isn’t available. Even if you were only a bystander because it was your job—even if you wished you could be not a bystander but a witness—what you see can taint you. And creating a technology that makes bystanders out of us was not, perhaps, a kind thing to do.
That’s the novel’s criticism of social media. Its other metaphor, though, makes social media just like IRL, but more so. Kayleigh’s job is also like a bad relationship, the kind where you lose yourself, where you find yourself doing things that you will look back on later with baffled shame. Her job makes it harder for her to interpret others’ actions—there’s a set piece where the cleaners watch in numbed fascination during what they think is a suicide in progress—and harder to interpret her own. Kayleigh hints that she’s done something that other people will judge. This possible offense was captured on video—and when the video is played back, Kayleigh and her ex disagree about what it shows. No rules can force them to agree on what they see, or on what they’ve done, or on who they became in the forum of their relationship, which was never as private as they’d believed.
BERVOETS DEPICTS SOCIAL MEDIA DIRECTLY, where other novels opt for new names and images. Samit Basu’s The City Inside (2020), which is the only social-media novel I’ve read that harbors even a hint of techno-utopianism, calls the online world “Flow,” a current which at once serves and drives its characters. Patricia Lockwood’s brilliant No One Is Talking About This (2021) calls Twitter “the portal”: a door opening onto a Narnia of banality, full of the worst talking animals imaginable. And Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes (2020; originally published with the title Kentukis in 2018) gives us the kentuki, perhaps the best of these images of “social media seen aslant”: a little stuffed animal that roams around your house, hosting an internet connection with one other person, randomly selected from a global user base, whose identity you don’t know.
As with Post, the best thing about Little Eyes is its central concept. The kentuki is a brilliant invention. It’s cute and creepy: “The animal looked like a simple and artless plush panda bear, though really it was more similar to a football with one end sliced off so it could stand upright. . . . They weren’t pretty, but even so there was something sophisticated about them that she still couldn’t put her finger on.” It’s not much like what social media is, but it’s totally recognizable as what social media is like. The kentuki is a pet and a voyeur. It’s mysterious—the thrill of the unknown!—and it’s never clear which side of the connection has the upper hand. People do things in front of the kentuki that they wouldn’t do in the warm presence of another person, even though the whole point is that with a kentuki you’re never alone.
The kentuki is a balm for lonely people, especially the elderly, and also a trap. People develop kentuki addictions, and the kentuki becomes a trend. The kentuki might be a front for pedophiles. The kentuki offers wonder—the scenes where a child in Antigua gets his first glimpse of snow through the eyes of his kentuki are gently beautiful. Through a kentuki, a refugee camp can open a window onto a pop concert in Hong Kong; this scene could have been a scathing satire on global inequality, but Schweblin instead shows us the tense ecstasy of being tossed through the night sky, amid the voices and the lights and the “feverish” faces, “spinning between two worlds.” Where Bervoets focuses on the failed dream of regulation, Schweblin depicts flexible and lawless cultural responses to new technology: a Croatian man who makes his living vetting kentuki connections for picky clients, because “you have to make the most of the legal lag time before everything is regulated”; a woman speculating about the differences in personality between “keepers” who buy the physical form of the kentuki and “dwellers” who hide behind its eyes. Her world feels adaptable, imaginative, and full of every color of emotion and motivation. And yet you’ll notice, as the little stories unfold piece by piece, that not one of them has a happy ending.
There’s something wrong with the kentuki. Perhaps we’re not meant to be so far from where our feet are. Perhaps disembodied communication pushes us to use and degrade others—although what is a novel, and what is this essay, if not disembodied communication? Maybe social media feels so different from good old-fashioned reading because of the expectation of reciprocity: The more we expect the person on the other end to see us and understand us, the more we expose our own unintelligibility and loneliness. The kentukis’ “dwellers” and “keepers” experience sex but not the senses, sex without touch. They can be poverty tourists without risk. They are witnesses without agency—bystanders, in a way. The promise of the kentuki is that if we are known, we will be loved. But that is only true when the knower is God.
In the story whose climax closes out the book, a woman uses her kentuki as a mental escape from acedia and romantic disappointment. The kentuki heightens and maybe warps her fantasies and emotions; the kentuki is a stage where she can act out everything she knows she needs to keep private. But, as often happens online, she’s a lot less anonymous than she thinks she is. Publicly, cruelly, she is forced back into her own uncomfortable skin. This is a devastating humiliation for her—and maybe the most hopeful way the book could end.