Author – Nikesh Shukla
Published – July 2014
I obtained my copy of Meatspace by bartering with author Nikesh Shukla at a writers event that we were both reading at. At the event he read the first few pages of the book, which instantly had me hooked, and also told some funny stories about his “fails” and “wins” on the internet. His win being the promo video he made for the novel, which featured a lamb chop being sent into space (because… meat. space.), going viral overnight.
Given that I had already been treated to the first few pages, I bumped it up my to read pile and here we are.
From Amazon –
The second novel from Costa First Novel Award shortlisted author Nikesh Shukla.
‘The first and last thing I do every day is see what strangers are saying about me.’
Kitab Balasubramanyam has had a rough few months. His girlfriend left him. He got fired from the job he hated for writing a novel on company time, but the novel didn’t sell and now he’s burning through his mum’s life insurance money. His father has more success with women than he does, and his Facebook comments get more likes. Kitab is reduced to spending all of his time in his flat with his brother Aziz, coming up with ideas for novelty Tumblrs and composing amusing tweets. But now even Aziz has left him, travelling to America to find his doppelganger.
So what happens when Kitab Balasubramanyam’s only internet namesake turns up on his doorstep and insists that they are meant to be friends?
Meatspace is a hilarious and troubling analysis of what happens when our lives become nothing more than an aggregation of shared content, when our online personas are more interesting than real life. A brilliant follow-up from an acclaimed young novelist writing at the sharp edge of modern life.
I rarely, if ever, give a book five stars. Firstly, because it’s just too easy to do and so makes it feel like you’ve really not considered everything about the book and broken it all down to a numerical value based on its pluses and minuses. Secondly, because if you get five stars what else is there to aspire to.
I had to give this book five stars based on two things – in comparison to other books I’ve reviewed which I have given my usual highest value of four stars, and because it is possibly the best book I’ve read in a great long while.
We enter Kitab’s life at a time when things could be going better – he’s wasting his money, failing to write, and most troubling is that he spends too much time obsessing over chutney. As the story progresses, Kitab and his brother Aziz play out parallel but unique experiences as Aziz tracks down his internet doppelganger and Kitab is befriended by another Kitab Balasubramanyam online and then in real life.
The name of the book is perfect – meatspace, a term used to mean real life as opposed to cyberspace, is at once suitable and sort of uncomfortable – which is arguably reflective of the content. As the stories of the two brothers continue the fun humour of the first half of the book takes a weirder and at times chilling turn as we learn the horrors of identity theft.
The stories of both brothers are immediately engaging, as are all the characters who have some real depth to them. The characters are so well drawn that it is easy to feel that large chunks of this story and those inhabiting it are in some way biographical. Both Kitab’s are likeable in their own ways, Aziz is the crazy friend or relative we all know, and the background characters – especially Kitab’s dad and Hayley – feel real and react appropriately. I was really impressed with both the way women and the way Kitab thinks of women, comes across – it feels real and it doesn’t offend. You get the impression both Shukla and Kitab are on the side of women, which is refreshing.
Kitab is totally relatable to creative types, but especially writers – many things he mentions are things I for one have done: working from gdocs, being distracted online when I should be writing, agonising over introducing yourself as a “writer” – it also made me paranoid that I might not have been signing my books on the correct page! Through Kitab and his writer-related thoughts and events Shukla illustrates well the writing/marketing balance (or lack thereof) of a writer in the social media age.
At it’s core this is a commentary on social media and a reminder that we need to be present in our real lives rather than “living” them online and building real relationships rather than assuming we know people from their online personas. That said, it isn’t ham-fisted and overdone, because it is literally played out – this is a modern day moral tale – and most of us can relate to it.
The story is fast paced and engaging, the first book in a long time that I have had to drag myself away from to shower/sleep/go to work and I was left feeling satisfied with the pay off. I’m not going to ruin the ending, but want to say I was really impressed by the little clues throughout that the reader can put together to guess how this all goes down at the end. It gave the book an extra layer and also added momentum – willing the reader on to the point where I would describe this as “unputdownable”. It’s wrapped up in a bittersweet ending with Kitab learning the lessons he needed to learn, and hopefully passing them onto the reader too.