Maybe you think your obsessive need to find out everything about everything via your personal device is a delightful reflection of the boundlessness of your curiosity and the suppleness of your intellect.
But your little quirk might not seem so charming when you see it manifested in Dan, the dispirited journalist in Helen Schulman’s new novel, “Come With Me.” Having slid down the greasy newspaper pole into joblessness, Dan has become a self-loathing middle-age slacker who whiles away his days e-chatting with other underemployed writers and using Google to settle the picayune disputes anxiously raging in his brain.
But as with the pleasures that come from pornography and Krispy Kreme doughnuts, these cerebral gratifications are brief and ultimately unsatisfying. His phone is his sin, his soul, his torment, “an oxygen tank for his breath-starved mind,” Schulman writes. His thirst for understanding can never be satisfied: Each moment of knowing gives rise to a new moment of not-knowing.
The other characters in this smart, timely and highly entertaining novel all have their own troubles with, for lack of a more specific term, technology. This is the shadow under which we operate. What is all this convenience and quick-fix distraction doing to people, to families, to society? Is it bringing people together or driving us apart? Are we using it, or is it using us?
These are not new questions. None of us is immune to the siren call of our gadgets, or to the nebulous sense of voluntarily hurtling toward some unforeseen future that is very bad. But Schulman, whose most recent previous novel was the best-selling “This Beautiful Life” (2011), has wrapped her distress in such an attractive package that the book slides down almost without your noticing its seriousness of purpose.
Here is Dan’s son Jack, constantly on Skype and FaceTime with his long-distance girlfriend, Lily, bringing her along 24/7 while he eats, showers, sleeps and has virtual sex (with her). The sex is better on the phone — “it was like she was in a trance, like she’d do whatever he wanted” — and they end up spending more time together when they’re apart than when they’re actually in the same place.
Here, too, are Jack’s younger brothers, twins known uncharmingly to the family as Thing One and Thing Two, after the Dr. Seuss characters, who have the requisite alarming love of PlayStation.
Then there is Amy, Dan’s wife, who serves as the book’s emotional heart. Juggling work and home, she’s ended up doing PR for a rackety startup run by the ludicrous Donny, a hoodie-wearing, Steve Jobs-imitating, Mark Zuckerberg-worshiping 19-year-old who happens to be the son of one of Amy’s oldest friends. Sometimes their meetings are held in his dorm room at Stanford, featuring his never-made bed. Sometimes he surprises her for breakfast meetings at home and finishes the box of Puffins that is meant for her kids.
Donny’s company is experimenting with an algorithm that allows people to play out alternative virtual-reality scenarios from their pasts — their “multiverses” — for “Sliding Doors"-style experiences. He makes Amy his guinea pig, using intimate details about her that his indiscreet mother has shared with him. Her would-be lives spin out in front of her.
She relives bits of her history and sees what it might have been like if she had, for instance, stayed with the irresistible, irresponsible, unfaithful, unemployed musician/actor/philosopher she lived with before Dan. What if she had not aborted their baby? What if Eric, the older brother she revered, had not died? What if? These fictional scenarios are utterly convincing and fill us with as much confusion, fear and longing as they do Amy. “It’s like nostalgia, only a billion times worse,” she says. “It’s like being boiled alive in oil.”
The family reaches a fault line when Dan becomes interested in a woman named Maryam, a photographer who is obsessed with the devastation wrought by the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.
Along with an exotic magnetism that quickly wears thin and a Knight fellowship in “experimental storytelling, immersive journalism and interactive design,” Maryam can out-nerd even Dan with the cascade of facts at her fingertips. She has a tiresome belief in her own fabulousness and a habit of sounding as if she is quoting from her own Nobel citation.
“I came to Stanford to study the neurobiological effects of cyberconnectivity,” she declares. “But recently, every cell in my body has been crying for Japan.” One of her former lovers is described as a “South American professor/revolutionary/poet, a super hottie, a sexual adventurer, who had also been in the Olympics.”
Schulman deftly moves around, telling her story from various points of view. Sometimes she strays a little far afield — I wasn’t sure I cared about the dating travails of Jack’s girlfriend’s mother, as amusing as they were — but her observations, particularly about the ridiculousness of the Northern Californian startup mentality, are always apt and sharp.
As the book gathers itself toward its conclusion, the crises that strike the family are all too non-virtual. Their machines cannot help them. We can play out multiple scenarios, dream multiple fantasies, write multiple stories in our heads, but in the end we have only one — complicated, imperfect, hard-to-face — reality.
‘Come With Me’
By Helen Schulman
307 pages. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.