Last month, via Zoom – the videoconferencing platform to which more and more formerly face-to-face talks have been migrating – I heard an indie publisher on the subject of unsolicited manuscripts. Besides your first ten pages, she reads the last ten and then ten more, at random, from the middle, so I joined her mailing list.

As for Zoom, I don’t mind watching live talks in my jammies while eating with one hand and taking notes with the other, or just staring out at the sunset or the stars if a speaker gets boring. But Zoom gives the moderator a lot of control. They can choose to mute the whole audience – no catcalls, whistling or booing. It’s as if Big Tech is reflecting our government’s fascist agendas. Though a host can allow participants to mute themselves, few do. Meanwhile, Covid-related restrictions on gatherings and travel are conditioning us to a compartmentalised existence, divided and conquered, remotely monitored, powerless to resist, and Covid won’t be over anytime soon, despite official spin geared to promote vaccine uptake, blood clots or not, as if Big Pharma could single-handedly cure our failing economy. Nor does online research via corporate mediation, though it beats total ignorance, provide unbiased information. It’s getting so that one of the most subversive things you can do is to curl up with a good old-fashioned thought-provoking book.

The other day, a friend, a brilliant writer and keen reader, came round with the last three novels she’d read in case I was interested. Unexcited by the titles, I asked why they’d appealed. She simply reads the back-cover blurb and the first page. This seems risky to me. Blurbs are designed, as in real-estate ads, to trigger a fantasy, while the endlessly tweaked first page is like a fresh paint job disguising damp and decay (that a few novels – and properties – fit their description doesn’t make me a cynic). But my friend, a far faster reader than I am, is easier to please and liked two out of three. Older than she is, with potentially less time left, I apply harsher scrutiny, reading previews and reviews. But would I have chosen any of these if I’d looked less closely?

When I pick up Bridge of Clay by Oz author Markus Zusak, the first of her recommendations, the mass-market-style cover screams NO! But having resolved to give it a fair go, I turn it over.

We were all of us changed through him.

Finding this quote too vague to be evocative, I read on: ‘The Dunbar boys bring each other up in a house run by their own rules. A family of ramshackle tragedy…’ Meh. ‘A miracle and nothing less.’ Yecch. And reviewers say: ‘so vibrant and so real’; ‘One of those monumental books’; ‘Warm and heartfelt’. An epic about the human spirit conquering adversity, i.e., sentimental, formulaic, manipulative escapism – but hey, I haven’t yet read the first page. And normally I wouldn’t. You can of course judge most books by their covers if you know what to look for, just as first impressions of people can be the most telling.

IN THE BEGINNING there was one murderer, one mule and one boy, but this isn’t the beginning, it’s before it, it’s me, and I’m Matthew, and here I am, in the kitchen, in the night – the old river mouth of light – and I’m punching and punching away.

That is, he’s typing: ‘me and the old TW’. The page isn’t crammed with words, but already I count eight characters plus the mule, which makes ten if none of these nine commits murder. We’re in the past, minus a setting as yet. Here, Zusak employs short sentences, short paragraphs, short passages and punchy vernacular – geared to pull the reader along at high speed. As heartily fake as home-style takeaway, a verdict confirmed by a peek at the acknowledgements (‘saviours’, ‘masters’, ‘geniuses’, ‘game-changers’, ‘life-changers’; a burgeoning cast of characters to rival the fictional gang), it’s bound for Vinnies or the nearest street library.

Next on the pile is a book with a very different vibe: Milk Fed by Melissa Broder. The in-your-face front cover image, a big pink cartoon tit (or a bird’s-eye view of a cupcake topped with a cherry?) doesn’t tempt me, but one of the two back-cover endorsements does: ‘A luscious, heartbreaking story of self-discovery through the relentless pursuit of desire. I couldn’t get enough of this devastating and extremely sexy book.’ That’s from Carmen Maria Machado, whose writing I hugely admire. So I’ll pretend I didn’t read the blurb inside the front cover: the point of the exercise is to try my friend’s approach, i.e., does this book hook me in on page one?

It didn’t matter where I lived—Mid-City, Mid-Wilshire, or Miracle Mile. It didn’t matter where I worked; one Hollywood bullshit factory was equal to any other. All that mattered was what I ate, when I ate, and how I ate it.

Broder has lost me with the third sentence. A whole novel about consuming? But I read on. The narrator – a calorie-counting smoker who chews gum between cigarettes – reminds me of an anorexic I once knew through group therapy. The first page ends with Rachel not having gotten past ‘Breakfast One’. My friend read this book to the end, despite not liking it. Thinking of the publisher on Zoom, I open Milk Fed at random. Food, some of it dairy-derived, is eroticised. OK. This is where it all starts to get political. In a society where various stages of food production and preparation tend to be gendered – e.g., more men than women work in abattoirs, on pig farms, as shearers, fishers etc., while more women than men collect recipes, buy groceries, and toil over a stove, never mind waiting tables and weight-watching – it seems somewhat churlish to frown on a woman for seeking to maximise whatever pleasures or comfort eating might offer. The horrors of factory farming are a far cry from the seductions of food porn. And yet, like women or the feminine, animals are objectified, their identities dismembered (ribs, rack, rump, ass, sirloin, gash), their needs – never mind feelings and preferences – forgotten, their interchangeable features selectively monetised for the profit of others. For plus-size women whose lives are shaped by discriminatory attitudes, their self-image subject to fat shaming, the trauma of hormone-fed, forcibly fattened animals may seem abstract. And yet these issues reflect the same system: rampant consumer capitalism. Almost all our food and much of our sex are its products – just like us. Good luck if you crave escapism. So I put Milk Fed on the outgoing heap and reach for the novel my friend liked best: she wants it back when I’ve read it.

The back cover of QualityLand by Marc-Uwe Kling hints at what’s inside (key word: algorithm), followed by quotes from Rob Hart (who?) and… me? (‘you, after you’ve read QUALITYLAND’). And if it’s not yet obvious that this is all-out satire, at the bottom left, on a mock label (glossy cream against matt brown), I read:

Customers Who Liked This Also Liked:

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; Douglas Adams;

Philip K. Dick; Futurama; Rick & Morty;

Thinking About Things; Recreational

Laughter; Sarcasm; Nihilism as Self-

Defence; Reading Lists Out Loud in their

Head(s); Going Too Far With Jokes.

Which sounds amusing until I Think About it. If customers liked these Things, should I infer they no longer do? Did QualityLand cure them of their liking for Sarcasm? And as for that last item, what about ‘less is more’? I open the book and find a corny technical note, then the title page, then ‘VERSION NOTES’, which reminds me of the prologue to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), Dave Eggers’s over-egged, overhyped, overlong pomo memoir. Has Kling read it? I’ve seen enough, but for the purpose of my experiment I need to read page one: the next page, with ‘1’ at the bottom and ‘INTRODUCTION’ at the top. Here goes…

‘So you’re off to QualityLand for the first time ever. Are you excited?’ No. Yet the second line second-guesses me: ‘Yes? And quite rightly so!’ There’s not much more to the page, but here’s the key idea:

Swept along by the panic of the financial markets, the government turned for help to the business consultants from Big Business Consulting (BBC) who decided that what the country needed most was a new name.

No doubt it gets better: a story (of sorts) with characters, ad breaks etc. Published in 2017, it’s a Trump-era novel, and the German perspective (it’s translated) intrigues. But now, how can satire (or stand-up, another string to Kling’s bow) match reality? Reading page one (and random others: OK, I cheated), leaves me less entertained than drained, partly because Kling unsubtly mimics the way capitalism infantilises us, by narrating in the manner of an overbearing adult addressing an impressionable child. So 339 pages = Going Too Far With the Joke for me.

It’s not as if I don’t laugh my arse off over great satire – early George Saunders, say, Pastoralia, comes to mind – but my favourites tend to walk a fine line between the absurd and the real, and part of why it’s getting harder to satirise technology, AI, politics, consumer capitalism etc. is that the pace of cultural change has overtaken not just the speed of publishing, but the rate at which even prolific authors can create. One recent satire that didn’t strike me as dated was the 2016 Booker winner, The Sellout by Paul Beatty. But it wasn’t hitting me over the head with what I already knew; unlike the mindless marketing bombardment Kling somewhat lamely simulates, US black culture isn’t my daily reality. What did my friend like about QualityLand? ‘It was just like television!’ she enthused. Good to know. I’d wait for the adaptation, but the planned HBO series got scrapped.

What else about the publisher on Zoom caught my attention? She denies any interest in plot or character. All her interest is held in the sentence, its quality, and the way that one sentence leads to another. Good luck adapting a book like that.

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