Surface Detail – Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First
By Max Dunbar.
Kiss Me First, Lottie Moggach, Picador 2013
Social media gets a bad press these days. It’s provided a base for countless ruminatory broadsheet columns, in which the growth of Facebook and Twitter is meant to signify the decline of our age, our descent into shallow alienation, rather than just a method of communication like any other. It’s true that talking to people online is always going to lack the certain something you get with face to face social interaction with great friends. But the Victorians conducted lengthy relationships in epistolary form, often generating decades of correspondence without ever meeting, and we do not think of the nineteenth century as an age of soulless materialism. And rather than isolating us in keyboard bedsit land, I would argue that cheap access to a digital social world has provided a great deal of warmth and connection, particularly among those who because of disabilities, shyness or childcare problems find it difficult to get out and meet people. The always excellent Norman Geras, celebrating 10 years online, wrote that:
The best thing for me about blogging, no question, is the many new friends I’ve made through doing it. This is internet friends and face-to-friends both. I know people in Australia, in North America, why, even in London, whom I would not have known but for the correspondence that first grew up between us because of my blog, often leading to later personal meetings. I value these friendships enormously. The tale that people who spend too much time on their computers are made lonely by it is one-sided at best.
But technology is only as good as the people who use it and while the internet is often a place of joy and kindness it has also given the vicious and small minded creative new ways to be evil. The misogynistic hate campaigns against seemingly any woman who has an opinion about something is the obvious example here. A more esoteric take on the problem is given by Lottie Moggach in her devastating debut, Kiss Me First.
Moggach’s protagonist Leila is perhaps the coldest character I’ve encountered in contemporary fiction. At just 23 Leila has learned little of life and almost no experience of human society. Following the death of her mother, who she has cared for all her life, Leila lives alone in a Rotherhithe efficiency, working from home as a software tester and playing World of Warcraft for eight hours at a time. Leila is most alive in online forums, particularly the ‘Red Pill’ philosophy website where she crafts seamless libertarian arguments, eventually attaining the status of ‘Elite Thinker’. Her narration is affectless, clinical and genuinely scary – she and Nick Laird’s misanthropic critic David Pinner would make a terrifying power couple of the digital age.
The Red Pill forum isn’t like Facebook. It’s a sinister Randian cult run by the spooky Adrian Dervish, who flatters Leila’s crystalline intellect and recruits her into a bizarre, ugly mission: to assist someone’s suicide. He introduces Leila to Tess, a bipolar art gallery invigilator in her late thirties who wants to kill herself, but doesn’t want her family to find out – she doesn’t want to fake her own death but fake her life, use her lively internet profile to convince the world that she lives on in a remote Canadian island. Leila’s job is to study the extensive digital footprint of Tess’s life enough to be able to fake a convincing online presence after she’s gone.
Tess isn’t like Leila. She is beautiful, popular, creative, compassionate and loved by men and women. The adventures of her life – foreign travel, unforgettable friendships, wild sex – have been punctuated by unbearable lows. Her life is a mess, but she has lived. Yet in her fourth decade, Tess has fallen into an emotional black hole. In her intro letter to Leila, Tess writes: ‘I just don’t see the point in repeating the same things over and over again, becoming more and more invisible, going to sleep and waking up, always doubting my own instincts, feeling either half alive or out of control. I just don’t want to do it any more.’ She also writes: ‘There’s no way out. This is it. I read this quote once from this woman which was ‘No hope of a cure, ever, for being me,’ and that’s exactly how I feel.’
So begin months of cramming as Leila immerses herself in Tess’s emails, status updates, tags, texts and tweets. The dynamic here – between an outwardly normal person who’s never really lived and a flawed person who has nevertheless enjoyed life to the full – was always going to be interesting, and Leila’s puzzled deadpan responses to Tess’s quirks, in-jokes and crises results in humour. The most well crafted characters of contemporary novels really are bags of bones compared to a single breathing real-life human existence, and through anecdote and detail Moggach captures the texture of that life better than any writer I can think of. But the humour gets dark quickly as Tess confronts the fear that suicides and para suicides must face – that at some point you are actually going to have to go through with it, the irrevocable separation from everything we know. Close to departure date, the two woman have a Skype session in which Tess confesses: ‘I’m so scared… It’s just… the void… do you understand?’ Leila responds with a quote from Marcus Aurelius: ‘It is one of the noblest functions of reason to know whether it is time to walk out of the world or not.’ More darkness, and in fact terror, comes from the fact that Leila doesn’t understand that the two have worked themselves beyond reason… or that she does know and is concealing that knowledge from herself and from us.
Leila does learn from this twisted relationship and through Tess’s influence begins to explore a world beyond her own. But there is a constant moral edge to the narrative because she finds her way to life over the bones of other people’s. It is a story about what Azar Nafisi described in a review of Nabokov’s Lolita: the confiscation of one individual’s life by another. I will be surprised if there is a better fiction published this year.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 4th, 2013.