The Short Version: The year is 1999. A newspaper ad, seeking “bright young things” attracts the attention of six particular British twentysomethings. They all go for the interview, drink the coffee… and wake up in a house on a small deserted island in the middle of the sea. Why are they there? What are they to do? Is Nintendo or Sega the better game system? These questions and more will be answered…
The Review: There are a lot of strange things about this book – about its inception, about its reissue, about my reading of it. It is Ms. Thomas’ first novel – and having read her three more recent novels (PopCo, The End of Mr. Y, and Our Tragic Universe) first, I thought I had a handle on her work. But this book surprised me in ways that I was wildly unprepared for.
For one thing, the introduction from the author is necessary to contextualize the whole thing. I am not a fan of reading the foreword of a reprinted novel as there’s often some sort of spoiler there – and this is true about this book as well. There is a spoiler for a plot point that crops up about two-thirds of the way through, just when a reader would be forgiven for wondering if there was to be any further “plot” than what had already happened. But the stuff Ms. Thomas reveals in said introduction makes you understand just how incredible this book actually is. It was written, you see, in 1999. Same year that it is set. It was published, however, in 2001 – and the paradigm shift in popular culture between those two years is unmistakable in retrospect. You see, that was when we got reality TV.
This book reads, for the most part, like the transcript of a few episodes of The Real World or Big Brother – it’s uncanny. Take three guys, three girls, stick them in a house together where they have nothing really to do. Sure, there’s some exploration but it’s a pretty tiny island. They’ve got food, they’ve got shelter – what else are they to do but get to talking? About themselves, about their lives, about each other. There are scenes where characters accidentally eavesdrop, there’s a shit-stirrer character who tries to push people into relationships – we even get time inside each character’s head, providing something unintentionally akin to a confessional. And in the world of 2013, it is impossible not to see these moments as parallels to various aspects of the reality TV experience.
Ms. Thomas’ introduction adds a note that she was spurred to fold in the big plot “twist” at the behest of her editors and publisher – that no one would want to simply read a book that was twentysomethings chattering away on a strange deserted island. The plot twist that she throws in is, point blank, terrifying. It casts a whole new light on the story and one that I don’t think she quite gives fullest shrift to – because it could’ve been fodder for something much more terrifying. And there is a story here that could easily have become a sort of psychological horror novel. But the plot twist is dispatched with relative ease (despite giving me nightmares for a brief spell) and instead we realize that the book is meant to be the opposite: it is not psychological horror but instead psychological healing.
A lot of column inches are devoted, of late but also probably of always, to the malaise of the twentysomething. We’re lazy, we’ve got our heads in the clouds, we’re ruining the world, etc etc – twentysomethings, you know exactly the articles I mean. But there’s a line in this book that encapsulates the problem of being a twentysomething in the present day (despite it having been written nearly fifteen years ago), where a character posits that maybe they’ve overdosed on life – and that this time away, where these six bright young things (for they all are exactly that) have no real concerns beyond keeping the generator running and making food and filling the time… this time is meant to be healing for them. And I don’t know a single twentysomething who doesn’t want that. Who doesn’t want, even deep down in the back of their souls, to have some time away. To check out of the world and just find peace. We’re all so knotted up with the stressors of our jobs, our bank accounts, our phones, our friends, our significant others, our families, our apartments, our cultural needs… wouldn’t it be nice to go somewhere isolated for a little while? To forget about your fears, to not have any worries but instead to just remember that life is meant to be enjoyed? We find those little islands of that in our day-to-day – but what about an extended vacation of that sort? It’d be nice, I think – and our six heroes/heroines seem to feel the same.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. I honestly think the plot twist could’ve been left out. I really do. I mean, this is me with the full context of it being 2013 and reading the author’s note and thinking the editors/publisher were a bit too old-school – and the book is fine with the twist, although it (as I said) veers sharply towards psychological horror in a way that doesn’t quite jive with the relaxing tone of the rest of the novel. But the most incredible thing here is Ms. Thomas’ prescience. You could say, of course, that twentysomethings have been “like this” for as long as the modern world has existed (every time you try to move those goalposts back, you realize that you could go even further – World War II? But what about the Wildean aristos? And then what about the Enlightenment salons? and so on) – but it’s fascinating to see a fully realized situation that needs only the cameras to be exactly what become massively-popular entertainment shortly after this novel’s creation. It’s a page-turner but only because it sounds like any conversation you might have at your friend’s house or at a bar. And I think, despite the lower-brow intellectual engagement (compared to the Troposphere and the riddles of PopCo), it might be my favorite thing Ms. Thomas has written.