The cover illustration for Joshua Mohr’s terrific new novel, All This Life, offers a clue—no, more than that, a cipher—to the book’s heart. It’s subtle and you might not notice it, or give it much thought on first blush, but between the glowing capital yellow letters “THIS” and the glowing orange capital letters “LIFE” is a spinning progress indicator-you know, that grey thing with the spokes that turns around while you’re waiting for something to happen on your computer. Or when your computer is telling you it’s trying to make a connection. (Personally, I preferred the old school Apple graphics-instead of the spinning beach ball of death (SBOD), we had an old-fashioned anarchist bomb, and instead of the spinning progress indicator, a wristwatch. But I guess nobody would know what a wrist watch is nowadays. Until they buy an Apple watch, I suppose.)
“Connection. To be connected. To be bridged across any divides. To be plugged into a network. To be alive.” (pg. 290)
Everybody and their brother is reading (as they should be) Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir, in which he speaks of the power structure run by those who “believe they are white” and its tradition of “destroying the black body.” But Mohr is speaking of an equally or perhaps even more pernicious attribute of our present day power elite, corporatocracy, plutocracy, oligarchy, lizard people, Evil Corp., whatever you want to call them-and the biotechnological gadgets/extensions of our bodies they practically force upon us (although of course they make it seem like a choice – Android or iPhone?): they are destroying not (just) our bodies, but our very souls.
Much has been written about the shocking and riveting opening scene of the novel. A 14-year-old boy (Jake) and his father, while stuck in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, watch in horror as a rag-tag marching band stops on the walkway next to them and, one at a time, take turns jumping off the bridge. Jake, a typical modern, Internet-tethered kid, who “literally always has [his earbuds] in,” films the event on his iPhone. His “movie” (both literal and in the old Prankster meaning of his life) almost instantaneously goes viral on Youtube (and soon Twitter), launching the plot into high gear. Mohr goes on to introduce a richly drawn, engaging cast of characters whose ultimately interlocking journeys find them meeting up again on the bridge for the book’s climax.
But why did those band members jump in the first place? Is it because the young members of the group are so disengaged from reality, due to the constant bombardment of social media, Google searches, email, etc., that they could only free themselves by destroying their own bodies? SPOILER: Jake is able to stop just short of this, by throwing his iPhone (and hence the ever-annoying Siri, and his false connection to humanity, freeing himself of his virtual shackles) off the bridge instead of his own body.
I found one of these characters, Rodney, aka “Balloon Boy,” particularly fascinating. Years before the book begins, while trying to impress his girlfriend Sara, Rodney takes a bad fall and suffers a serious head injury. The book takes place in 2013, so Rodney’s accident took place around 2007-that simpler, quainter time when the Internet was not in anybody’s pocket but restricted to computers, and Wifi wasn’t yet considered a basic human right, and practically no adult outside of the tech world had heard of Facebook. Rodney’s injury has left him with aphasia-a four-word sentence takes him “20 seconds to choke…out.” For all intents and purposes, he is stuck in the pre-social media time. His brain functions perfectly otherwise-he’s the same old person, inside-and he can communicate perfectly well, so long as he has access to pen and paper.
“He cannot communicate orally and yet he is able to write down everything, not only jotting recaps of each day, but even allows himself to write little one-act plays.” (pg. 96)
But nobody, including his ex Sara, his father or his uncle, seem to realize this. At first I found this silly-how could they not know this, after half a dozen years?-but then I realized that of course nobody knows that Rodney is still whole on the inside-not only is there never a pen and paper around when he needs one (remember when all intelligent people used to carry a pen and notebook with them at all times?), even if there was, who would have time to digest such an archaic form of communication, when instead you could watch, for instance, a porn video starring yourself, like Sara, or drink yourself into a comatose state, like his dad? So nobody else knows that Rodney is fine inside. Because he can’t interact in the “usual” way, he’s considered an idiot. Rodney is the pre-digital man, frustrated, who can’t make himself heard, even as he sees the bigger picture better than everybody else, a guileless and pure of heart modern-day Prince Myshkin.
“That’s what makes Balloon Boy feel so alone, all the swirling thoughts that can only clank around his brain like shoes in a dryer. Alone, with no way to articulate himself.” (pg. 94)
Thankfully, Mr. Mohr has found away to articulate our disconnectedness for all of us. Highly recommended. I could write more about it, but I don’t want to give away any more spoilers. Besides, I have to go check and see if I have any new Pinterest followers.
All This Life: A Novel by Joshua Mohr, Soft Skull Press.
–review by Bernard Meisler
Sensitive Skin 12 available here in PDF format here for just $4.95, or get the full-color print version via Amazon and select bookstores.