Feed is not a comfortable novel, nor is it comforting. I seem to be on a string of these sorts of YA novels lately—not mention my Animorphs re-read. I feel strongly that these types of books are valuable for young people. There is something to be said for escapism and the reassuring, but somewhat inaccurate, message that some of the most popular dystopian YA is giving that “youth can fight the power.” But I am pleased when a novel reminds us that, sometimes, there are not easy answers to the elements that lead to dissatisfaction or dystopia.
Take this book (because it’s the one I’m reviewing now). Titus, the narrator, is an idiot. He knows only what his feed tells him, and only if he cares to query it. For example, he doesn’t even know or care which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in! (Heh heh—I see what you did there, M.T. Anderson.) Then he falls for this meg pretty girl, Violet, who seems a little different from his friends. Turns out she was homeschooled by her eccentric father, only got her feed when she was seven, and generally doesn’t know how to “fit in.”
So Titus gives her an opportunity to experience what life is like as “normal” teen, and Violet tries to open up his eyes to the wider world. She wants him to question why their corner of the United States is so insular, why nothing is growing any more unless humans planted it, why the Global Alliance is so belligerent towards the U.S. these days. Titus, for the most part, wants none of it. He doesn’t care why lesions are appearing on everyone’s skin, but no one is doing anything about it.
But then Violet starts dying, and suddenly it’s like A Walk to Remember if everyone in the movie were a jerk addicted to the computer in their brain.
The most amazing thing about Feed is that it really should be a terrible novel. It has one of the most basic premises—the idea that humans get wetware interfaces to the Internet. The language and diction are in a contrived dialect—more on that in a moment. And it winds and meanders towards what one can only describe as a downer ending. Somehow, though, it works. Feed isn’t mediocre; it isn’t good—it’s actually excellent.
Let’s talk narration. Anderson goes all in, not just on the dialogue but Titus’ own internal thoughts and stream of consciousness. He and his peers use their own types of slang—meg as in “mega;” mal as in “malfunction” (getting high off sensory feedback loops induced by the feed). This is one way to do worldbuilding, of course, albeit a risky one if the dialect feels too forced or is so alien that it becomes a chore to read. Fortunately Anderson manages to find a good balance. These characters really do feel like they are living in a futuristic world with flying cars and routine visits to the Moon—and it’s mostly thanks to the language, because there isn’t much description.
What really gets me about the language, though, is how the parents talk. Titus’ father talks like a cross between someone my age and a hippie: “‘She’s like, whoa, she’s like so stressed out. This is … Dud,’ he said. ‘Dude, this is some way bad shit.’” Now, I can imagine an adult speaking like that. But can you imagine an adult who is actually a banker speaking like that? And it’s not just a matter of being informal with one’s son—the doctor in charge of restoring Titus’ feed connection requests “a thingie, a reading on his limbic activity.” In these ways, Anderson subtly cues us as to how society has changed. Standards are different now; what it means to speak and act professionally is different. Anderson emphasizes the infantilization of child and adult alike at the hands of the corporations.
Because when you get down to it, corporations are the bad guys in this book. Feed is unabashedly anti-capitalist, which makes me love it even more. The feed might make your life easier, but it is there to streamline the process of consumption. Anderson takes the current trends of consumer culture to its (disturbing) extremes: your interactions with the feed allow companies to build a profile of you, which they use to send you personalized ads and promotions, to encourage you to buy things, which then contribute to your profile. This conspicuous consumption, along with the feed itself, seems localized to the United States (and maybe a few other very rich countries), while the rest of the world collapses into squalor and war.
Sound familiar? No? Corporations are already doing this. Spark had a very interesting segment on a recent episode in which they talk about product companies becoming Big Data companies, using Uber and Amazon as examples of companies that supposedly offer services or products but seem to be making more money off our data. As it becomes easier to collect and aggregate data about our habits, corporations will do it faster and faster, and try to sell us things as a result. The feed just makes this process more instantaneous and surreptitious—but other than not having ads beamed directly into your brain, it is already happening right now.
Anderson has Violet lead Titus towards an awakening on this idea, just as he must hope the book leads the reader to question aspects of American consumer culture. Unfortunately, it’s not an easy road for Titus, and their relationship suffers for it. As a reader it’s heartbreaking to watch Titus treat Violet poorly because her challenging of the system has overwhelmed him: she is dying, and he ignores her messages because he doesn’t want to deal with her idiosyncrasies. But this is why I like the book: it’s realistic, and it’s tough. Titus is not some kind of hero. He doesn’t start the revolution. He’s just a kid, a confused, hormonal adolescent, who wants a girlfriend. But she turns out to have weird ideas, and now she’s dying, and he’s scared. So he acts out.
While Anderson presents Violet at first as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (TVTropes) who will liberate Titus from the drug of the feed, show him the light, and lead him on an adventure.
It doesn’t work out that way.
Instead, Anderson deconstructs this trope. Titus rejects most of Violet’s influence, at least for the majority of the book. Indeed, she virtually has to beg with him to go off on a literal adventure into the woods; he turns down sex with her because he’s grossed out by her terminal illness—and so their weekend falls apart. It’s not good times. Although Violet does leave a lasting impact on Titus and make him question the status quo, it is nowhere near as fast or as dramatic as one might expect.
And so we get to the ending.
I hated the ending. At first.
The ending disappointed me, because I was expecting this big conclusion. When Titus goes to Violet’s house and confronts her father, I expected them to commiserate over their mutual loss and become closer for it. But instead there is a lot of swearing and recrimination and even the threat of physical violence … and it makes total sense. I don’t know why I was expecting what I did, because that is actually a much better reaction to what has happened.
Feed can’t provide a happy ending, because there isn’t one. Violet is dead. The world is going to shit. The lesions are getting worse (and gross—thanks a lot for those nightmares, Anderson). Titus has a inkling of the outside world now—there is a tiny sliver of hope, there, but it’s not much. As the garbled messages of the advertisements that close out the novel seem to imply, maybe it’s just our time. Our final bow, our curtain call. Humanity’s era coming to a close in a last, drawn out swan song.
I don’t know. I don’t think it’s meant to be depressing so much as sobering. This is a novel that invites us to rethink what I’ll call the Church of Denialism that is prevalent in many countries, including Canada, but almost to the point of fervent worship in the United States. It combines the creed of exceptionalism (always popular, in the States) with the poison of apathy (ever easier, with mass media giving way to personalized media) to create the cognitive dissonance that makes it possible to ignore the pervasive police state springing up in a country that purports to value freedom and liberty, or the criminalization of poverty at a time where it is possible to feed, clothe, and care for every human on the planet. While we laugh and shop and watch our MTV (and write our Goodreads book reviews), people elsewhere die of diseases we’ve eradicated here, not because we are wilfully malicious, but because we just can’t bring ourselves to care….
If I sound angry, it’s because I’m angry. I hope you get angry after reading Feed. Get angry at these characters—go ahead; they’re just fictional creations; you can’t hurt them. Get angry at these characters for being so stupid that they can just let the world burn. Get angry at government corruption, at corporate greed, at consumer culture. Get angry. And then, maybe we can channel that anger, and do something about it.
Because maybe what young adults need is not to be cast as the hero in a power fantasy about overthrowing the adult-run dystopia. Maybe what they need is a sobering look at the problems with our world today, one where the ending reminds them that there are no easy answers. Maybe what they need is a little anger directed at the people, institutions, and ideologies that got us into this mess.
So that’s what I thought about Feed, and that’s why I enjoyed it. Anderson takes what could have been a simple novel with some fairly stock tropes and turns it into a powerful message novel about questioning the status quo, with bonus social commentary on capitalism and consumer culture. This is all totally my cup of tea already, so I confess to meg bias on that front. But all the more reason I’ll recommend this to people, adults and teens alike. These issues are important, and literature is capable of making us think and feel—both key prior to taking action. Feed makes you do that. So, bravo.