Please report your error here
Written by Josh Riddell
Holt: 288 pages, $28
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Josh Riedel’s “Please Report Your Bug Here” is set in Silicon Valley in the early 2010s. As the author was an early Instagram employee and his first novel, which comes laced with quips from a literary tech skeptic, is framed as a diary show, we’re Get ready for some very serious satire. However, this is not quite the world we know.
Technology, for one thing, is more advanced. One of the app’s best features, explains Ethan, a modern art history specialist who works on a junior dating app called DateDate, is its “mood sensing technology” that uses “your phone’s camera, microphone, and accelerometer to understand your current mood.” After Every Bite” and panels respond to the viewer’s emotions – so when a bemused Ethan looks at one, it turns from “horizontal to psychedelic swirls”.
In a world unlike our own, one of the most effective ways a novel can clue the reader into its logistics is through the characters’ reactions. When narrator Ethan encounters these technological wonders, he doesn’t bat an eye. To lend to this alternate universe, the technology described is not particularly Jetsons-like – flying cars and robot maids are not. But when Ethan makes an accidental discovery while trying to clean up bugs in DateDate’s code, the established rules are broken, exposing (and possibly creating) a flaw in the tone of the novel that never resolves itself.
Here’s what I mean: The discovery Ethan makes is that when a user on a dating app sees him as his perfect match, Ethan is briefly transported to a strange world vaguely referred to as “Other Worlds.” Standing “in a field, with tall, wet grass” under a sky “full of birds”, he hears the hum of nearby ocean waves before suddenly appearing in his office. His boss asks if he’s alright, and Ethan spouts a popular sci-fi story, pretending he’s alright because he can’t explain what just happened, and because, fittingly enough, when he tries to explain, he loses “all memory of what happened, from where you went “. Then he went back to work.
But that is not what drove me away; Rather, it was the strange things that felt strangely normal. DateDate, like a lot of startups, has been acquired by The Corporation, an Apple-like company with an elaborate campus and endless resources that turns out to be responsible for Ethan’s teleportation accident. As a way to test a new product called Gates, “a standalone app that takes you to different vacation destinations,” the company “pushed beta code to DateDate” before purchasing it. Ethan’s “other world” is a glitch that the company has not fully caught.
The Portals version is much anticipated — beta testers include Johnny Depp and Beyoncé — and no one seems bothered by the invention of teleportation, not to mention that it’s much more Jetsonian than any other extrapolation of current technology in the book. It takes a while for the Department of Homeland Security to get through the gates, but even then it’s only because a small fraction of the flights may have been “undocumented.” Why isn’t any of this being treated as the massive, world-altering development?
This reaction is made even more confusing in light of the rest of the novel, which is firmly rooted in the real world. References to lyrics by National, paintings by Matisse and Miró, two books by Adrienne Rich and “Lost in Translation” by Sofia Coppola (Ethan stays at the Tokyo Hotel is there) – all this grounds Ethan’s narrative in concrete reality. It is difficult to reconcile this familiarity, bordering on banality, with technological magic realism.
If that sounds like nitpicking, that’s because it is. But in stories like this, the meticulous cultivation of an invented scientist requires precision and nuance, and on such a perilous path, a slight stumble can lead to a major meltdown. Creating a believable setting—especially a semi-realistic setting that is important to the story—is just as important (and challenging) to the success of the novel as creating compelling characters and interesting narratives.
In fact, the teleportation items are “please report a bug here” problems. The plot mechanics, which involve Lisbeth Salander of a species called Numa searching for a young girl trapped in “other worlds,” extend the silliness in similar ways. How did the girl survive for years in this fleeting, ephemeral place that is alternately described, hazyly, as a void, a personal inventory of memories or another dimension? Like, what did you do He eats? And why don’t any of the characters—including the girl’s father—ask these questions, just to let the reader know that such things were considered?
A generous reader might be tempted to write off this as a by-product of satire, which stretches the rules of plausibility in a way that hard science fiction might not be. But then, the satirical elements just aren’t blunt enough to justify it. The company is akin to all the giant conglomerates that offend contemporary narratives, from Dave Eggers’ “The Circle” to Hooli’s “Silicon Valley” to WALL-E’s “Buy n Large” to Severance’s “Lumon Industries.” The founder of DateDate is literally called the Founder (capital F), and that’s how everyone refers to it, but there’s a figure who’s only referred to as the Engineer (lowercase e) – a jab, no doubt, in the tech hierarchy, where it’s handled Upper class only as proper nouns. But he also reduces these characters to tropes.
Riedel aims to use these high-concept ideas to explore existential questions about identity, art, and technology, and there are moments when his talk on these topics is effective, even insightful. But novels are not unlike a complex piece of programming: a bewildering number of hidden components must work in unison to make seemingly simple functions possible, and as it first appears to Riddell, even small errors in the code can bring down an entire project.
Clark is the author of “Oasis of Horror in the Desert of Boredom” and “Skateboard”.