Followers (2019): Megan Angelo

★★★½

It’s remarkable how prescient The Truman Show (1998) looks nowadays. It’s also rather alarming that it no longer seems quite so strange for someone to live his entire life in public, for the voyeuristic gratification of others. After all, it happens all the time on Instagram. This dystopian debut novel by Megan Angelo tells two linked stories about the impact of celebrity: one set among the influencers and ‘Insta-famous’ of 2015, and the other in 2051, in a world that has changed beyond recognition in some ways, but which retains its thirst for consuming the lives of others. Now, I’ll be honest with you, and confess that I bought this expecting it to be a piece of diverting literary fluff – but it turned out to be unexpectedly absorbing, holding up an ominous mirror to the world in which we currently live, and asking just how much we really want to share.

Orla Cadden came to New York believing that the big city had a place for her. Lauded by her teachers in high school, she’s convinced that she has a great future as a novelist in front of her. She’s going to get a temporary job to tide her over, get an agent, and write with all her power and passion until her great work is unleashed upon a grateful world. At least, that was the plan. But that was years ago. And now it’s 2015 and Orla is 28, with a temporary job that shows every sign of having become her long-term job, and no more than a few pages of her novel to show for it. Evenings, supposedly dedicated to the book, disappear in a dazed flood of Facebook and Instagram updates. Her only outlet for writing is her work as a hack, churning out attention-grabbing celebrity articles for the website Lady-ish, usually about the influencer Sage Sterling. But, when Sage dies young, Orla needs to find a new hot star, to prove to her boss and her colleagues that she still has her finger on the pulse. Celebrity journalists are nothing without celebrities.

Then, something remarkable happens. Orla realises that her elusive new flatmate, Floss, is determined to make it big as an influencer. The two girls realise they can help each other. Together, using Floss’s talent for drama and Orla’s publicity skills, they create a lifestyle that rockets to the top of the ratings. Floss scores freebies, devoted followers, and a social-media-gold boyfriend, Aston Clipp, who shrewdly sees leverage for himself in the scheme. Orla is relegated to the background, but at least she enjoys Floss’s reflected fame – people see her, even if they’re looking for Floss. And Orla knows that she created this phenomenon: ‘With nothing but her job and her phone and her instincts, she had claimed a minor superpower: she had made someone famous just by saying it was so.’ Before they know it, these three young people are riding the crest of an unbelievable wave, their every move tracked, absorbed and discussed by legions of followers. But what price celebrity? What do you have to give up to hold onto it? And, when staying on the front page is the chief aim, what place is there for values like kindness, humanity, and honesty? What kind of Faustian bargain has Orla made?

In 2051, Marlow lives with her husband Ellis in the town of Constellation, California. Everything she does and says is broadcast live to her audience of millions of hungry followers, who use bionic devices to log in to the new, government-run internet. The Constellation network was formed to lure people back to the internet in the aftermath of The Spill, to encourage them once more to give up their habits and their secrets to the watching spies and corporations. People might distrust the government’s internet, but they can’t resist the news feeds that give them constant access to the lives of Constellation’s inhabitants: people famous for being famous, whose younger generation has grown up under the constant scrutiny of millions. Marlow has made her own Faustian bargain – or rather, it was made for her as a child. She has security and comfort. She doesn’t have to make any choices. Life is easy; the surroundings are beautiful.

But there’s another side of the coin. She may be called ‘talent’, but really she’s nothing more than product. Her wardrobe is chosen for her by the network; her story arcs are selected by the network; her ambitions and dreams are manipulated by the network, all for her own good, of course. She has become famous as the face of Hysteryl, a calming medication whose sponsorship of Marlow gives them enviable access to her impressionable followers. But something inside Marlow is beginning to shift. What if she didn’t have to follow someone else’s map for her life? What if people weren’t constantly watching her, their comments scrolling constantly inside her head? What if she could escape a husband she doesn’t really love and a narrative arc she didn’t choose? But, when your every move is watched, and your vitals and location are always visible via your device, how can you disappear?

With hints of Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last – another world in which people occupy a comfortable gated environment, enjoying security in return for being exploited – this is a very readable tale about celebrity and consumption. It’s mature and well-crafted, and it’s unafraid to make many of its characters fundamentally unpleasant. Angelo also nods to growing concerns about the physiological impact of screen-time and blue light, and the danger of sensitive information being leaked, showing us the internet in all its guises: a quick path to fame for those willing to share, but also a place in which nothing, once shared, can ever be forgotten. An engaging millennial dystopia – and, worryingly, not all that far removed from reality. Incidentally, there’s a cover blurb from Christina Dalcher, the author of Vox, another recent novel which imagines modern trends leading us into a grimmer future.

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