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A satirical rant against social media

Mala Bhargava | Updated on September 29, 2021

John Boyne has a good go at Twitter and other cultural evils in The Echo Chamber

Quite clearly Irish author John Boyne has had it with social media. Having written about altogether different subjects in his previous novels, which include The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, he now pivots around sharply to bite hard at Twitter and its brethren in his new book The Echo Chamber. But first, we are introduced to the not-very-clever Cleverley family.

George Cleverley is vaguely likeable, human as he is and generally well- meaning but fallible. George is a long time television personality with the BBC and has interviewed an endless stream of celebrities on his show.  All is sailing along fine, including an extra-marital affair, when a careless chance remark gets him into trouble. This blows up on Twitter whereupon his real life begins to tumble about his ears. People take offence and launch a vituperative attack, crowds gather outside BBC — and his mistress informs him she’s pregnant. 

Wife Beverley Cleverley meanwhile is having some fun of her own with a Ukrainian ballroom dancer who lives to sow plenty of wild oats. The real love of his life is his hundred and fifteen year old tortoise, Ustym Karmaliuk, Beverley is an author who never actually does any writing but employs ‘ghosts’ to translate her idea-bits into best-selling novels. 

Then there are the Cleverley children. Nelson, who should have been brave but is in fact, socially awkward and naive as well as the target of much bullying. To feel better about himself, Nelson dons various uniforms such as surgeons’ scrubs and police uniforms and gets on dating apps. Inevitably, it’s going to lead to trouble. He is, predictably, gay. 

Elizabeth Cleverley is a social media influencer whose sole focus in life is to increase her follower numbers. She has a reeking boyfriend, but never mind him; she also has anonymous Twitter accounts via which she spews hate, watching in glee as this spirals her numbers. Social media is more important to Elizabeth than to anyone else in the family. “But I have a blue tick!’ she says. ‘The common people want to know how blue-ticked people fill their days. Otherwise, how can they have aspirations?’

And, finally, we have teenaged Achilles, whom everyone unreservedly describes as ‘an idiot’. In fact, he’s quite the con artist and is quietly amassing ill-gotten gains. 

The Echo Chamber has the hint of some story-lines, but that and the Cleverley family are a vehicle for the author John Boyne to tell you exactly what he thinks of social media, using smartphones, woke culture, labelling individuals, and having nothing better to do. This is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny and sometimes grating. But always crystal clear. “We live on these devices now but, in reality, they’re a total waste of time. Think about it. You spent however many minutes telling strangers that you were meeting me for coffee, minutes that you could have spent doing something more productive,” to quote an inter-Cleverley argument.

Every now and then, apropos of nothing, Boyne pipes in the birth of social networks. “And at that precise moment, in San Francisco, a twenty-nine-year-old man named Jack Dorsey, having finished creating the operating system and website, tweets this: @jack: “just setting up my twttr”

Having got every Cleverley into trouble, Boyne then proceeds to rapidly turn the screws and turn up the volume as each disbelieving individual finds himself or herself squirming in a trap of their own making — with a lot of help from social media. 

This book is based on the author’s own unpleasant experiences on Twitter. One glance will show you that these continue till today. Fans of John Boyne can either go along for the ride with an author never known to write in a formulaic manner in any case or not find enough depth and substance to chew on. But then, it is satire, after all. 

(Mala Bhargava is consultant editor at The Hindu Business Line and writes on personal technology)-

 

About The Book

The Echo Chamber

John Boyne

Doubleday

432 pages; Rs 550 (paperback)

Check out the book on Amazon

Published on September 29, 2021

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