The first thing that gets you about M.T. Anderson’s “young adult” science fiction novel Feed is the narrator’s voice: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck. We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Arwaker was like, ‘I’m so null,’ and Marty was all, ‘I’m null too, unit,’ but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we’d been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them…”
And so on, for 300 pages. It’s the tone that does it. Feed isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s dead-on as an act of linguistic impersonation, or possession. No actual living teenager is this vapid and unreflective — in fact, even the most conformist, consumerist, trendy, and outwardly unreflective teens turn out to be filled inside with anxiety, loneliness, uncertainty, and a paralyzingly exacerbated self-consciousness — but Anderson has channeled instead the Platonic Idea, as it were, of the privileged and pampered male American teen, at least as the media (or better, Entertainment Capitalism) would want him to be.
In the future world of the novel, all of television, computers, mobile phones, and the Internet is available, interface-free, through a neural-interface chip implanted inside your head at birth. (At least, that is, if you are in the 73% of the American population that can afford it). It’s all a continuous feed: AOL-chatting with your friends, hearing music, watching comedies and dramas, getting the news if you are interested (most people aren’t), looking up words you don’t know and facts about any subject — and above all, getting those constant exhortations to buy, with ads that are context-sensitive and tailored especially for your own particular preferences. Fashions are continually changing, so there’s always something new to get, especially if you are an affluent, post-literate teen with an ample monetary flow and lots of time on your hands, since there’s so little you actually have to do.
Perhaps all this is obvious and predictable, but it’s almost uncanny the way Anderson captures the sense of the flow, the immersion in multimedia, the eternal Now in which everything is always changing, but for that very reason there’s this absolute monotony, since the mere fact of meaningless change is the only thing there is. Ernst Bloch’s unfair characterization of Bergson — “sheer aimless infinity and incessant changeability; where everything ought to be constantly new, everything remains just as it was” — is an accurate description of the endless, kaleidoscopic “feed” that Anderson describes. How the genuinely New is actually possible in such circumstances — which is Bloch’s great question, as well as Bergson’s (though Bloch, with an ungenerosity that is quite unusual for him, refuses to concede this in Bergson’s case), and Deleuze’s, and above all Whitehead’s — is not directly addressed by Anderson’s novel.
Instead, we get satire that turns to tragedy. The narrator’s girlfriend attempts to revolt against the Feed. Her rebellion is quite tentative and uncertain: this is exactly right, because the whole point is that neither she, nor anyone else in the world of the novel, has any sort of external perspective to bring to bear on the Feed, precisely because it subsumes everyone and everything, translates whatever you encounter into a matter of mere/sheer commodity consumption. Nonetheless, however timid and incomplete her rebellion is, it is enough for the Feed to destroy her: both mentally/metaphysically/morally, and literally/physiologically. The book’s greatest accomplishment is to convey the full creepiness of this destruction, while/although the narrator himself remains utterly incapable of understanding it, or her. An unreliable narrator is one thing; but a narrator who is reliable as to the facts, but uncomprehending as to their import, is far more painful and disturbing. (Affect cuts deeper than epistemology). The resulting, slightly queasy, feeling of combined immersion and alienation is what makes the novel more than just a clever commentary that any NPR listener, or snob who refuses to watch TV, could approve of. It leads, instead, to a sense of complicity: the realization that I cannot pretend to be somehow superior to, or even external to, the object of my critique.