Sternbergh has a lot of things going on in Shovel Ready. He’s got to concoct a hit man the audience can relate to, he’s got to sketch in a crippled New York and a world changed by ubiquitous but expensive VR, he’s got to find a plot of some kind for those ideas to anchor in, and he has to write well enough to overcome the fact that in his dystopian near future, the economic collapse has stolen all the quote marks.
I mean it as a compliment when I say that he does best with the quote marks thing. It’s incredibly annoying to read a novel which is first person narrated as direct speech and has nothing to differentiate between the narrator talking to the read and the characters talking to each other. It’s why I still haven’t read most of George V Higgins’ early books. Sternbergh pulls it off; you can tell who’s talking and who they’re talking to, with no more difficulty than I’ve experienced in conventional narrative. That’s much harder to do than Sternbergh makes it look.
For the rest; he chickens out on his antihero, who turns heroic at the drop of a hat and has far too sympathetic a backstory. The collapse of New York is well thought out, though I imagine real New Yorkers would argue the point. Sternbergh gives us a New York where a dirty bomb and a succession of car bombs finally made New Yorkers cut and run, escaping either into the rest of the US or virtual reality. I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s a novel angle on the question of what makes a citizen into a refugee, and the tipping point where you go from one to the other.
A world changed by VR? Sternbergh’s by no means the first person to make the point that if we had the holodeck, no-one would ever get out of bed again, so the question is what does he say next? The most unexpected thing is probably his notion that it sidelines the internet completely, making it as quaint and marginal as fax machines are now. The plot twist which drives the big reveal is far less surprising; of course the new technology is used for beastliness. The actual beastliness is quite clever; it’s surprising, and yet obvious in hindsight. And horrible, although that kind of goes without saying in a book where the narrator is a man who goes around killing people with a box cutter; you’ve got to up the villain ante a lot to make that look good.
The weird thing is the way that it’s treated as somehow notable that a new technology is used not just for pleasure, but cruel pleasure; that the premium product is based on suffering. To me, this seems almost obvious. On the one hand, you don’t need to pay people to share an experience which is genuinely fun for everyone. It turns into something you pay for when the people on the serving end would rather be doing something else. But the other angle is simpler, and perhaps more depressing. Rich people are the people with the most money. And to BE the people with the most money, they had to be the kind of people who enjoyed taking things off other people. Sure, some of them just don’t care that they’re getting rich by making other people poor. But there’s going to be a lot of people in that demographic for whom it’s not just about winning; it’s about the other guy losing. And of course those people are going get their kicks from other people suffering. It shouldn’t surprise us; it’s something we ought to be ready for. Yes, behind every great fortune is a great crime. And often, ahead of it too.