John Boyne has more cause than most to detest social media. He has spoken about the online harassment he suffered after the publication of My Brother’s Name is Jessica, his 2019 novel narrated by a boy whose sibling transitions to female. He was accused, in often vitriolic terms, of transphobia, misgendering and straying too far from his own experience.
e can’t be charged with that last offence in The Echo Chamber, a merciless skewering of the online mob mentality. This is Boyne serving his revenge cold, and he is doing it with a smile on his face.
The novel centres on the Cleverlys, an English family who live in a five-floor house in the wealthy London district of Belgravia. George is a 60-year-old BBC TV chat show presenter, an affable liberal who is chummy with the stars and charming to his fans. He has sponsored 18 goats in Somalia and attended seven Pride marches. He has also just got his eldest son’s therapist pregnant.
His haughty wife Beverley is a bestselling chicklit novelist whose books are produced by ghost writers, once she gives them the barest outline of a story. She is having an affair with Pylyp, a Ukrainian who was her professional partner on Strictly Come Dancing. It turns out she is not the only one to have tangoed with him.
George and Beverley’s eldest son is Nelson (named after Mandela; his middle name is Fidel), a socially awkward teacher. He tries to hide his insecurities by dressing in uniform in public: a hospital orderly, a builder, a policeman — the last one, fatefully, on a speed-dating session.
Their daughter Elizabeth is a social media addict who, when not virtue-signalling on Instagram, uses an anonymous Twitter account to troll all and sundry, including her father and even herself. She doesn’t work because “I just don’t think it’s the right thing for me”. Her woker-than-thou boyfriend Wilkes is trying to persuade her to come to India with him to volunteer at a leper colony, which she admits would do wonders for her follower count.
Achilles, the youngest child, uses his good looks and charisma to blackmail middle-aged men he meets via gay dating services.
In short, nobody is what they seem. It’s as if Boyne is asking us to imagine if we lived the way we act on social media, where it’s so easy to present a curated, even disguised version of ourselves. Almost everything anyone says or does here is false on some level. The pivotal moment comes when George tweets in support of his solicitor’s trans receptionist, formerly Aidan, now Nadia. He makes the mistake of using her “dead name” and is monstered on social media. But don’t imagine that he is a saintly stand-in for the author and his experience. He sends the tweet minutes after berating Nadia for not explaining her transition to him. His behaviour in private is one thing; in public it’s another.
That’s not to say you can’t imagine some of George’s anti-mob rants coming from Boyne’s mouth: “It’s all offence, offence, offence, these days, isn’t it? Every person vying with everyone else to see who can be the most affronted, who can show that they’re the most woke — that’s the word, isn’t it — and each one desperate to prove that they’re morally superior to the poor unfortunate idiot who’s been dragged into their cauldron of pain.”
Meanwhile, the other Cleverlys find their secrets and lies unspooling over the space of one frenzied week. The way they stumble towards their just deserts is like a less bloody version of What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe (a passing reference to the English author may be a sly tip of the hat).
Each day of the week is prefaced by an episode from the Cleverlys’ past where they were more together, more loving, more well-adjusted, concluding with the simultaneous invention of a social media platform. The implication is that each one has made us behave worse, although the novel’s closing moment suggests that we will be stuck with them for a long time to come.
There are worse online offenders than the woke, of course, but it’s the hypocrisy that seems to grate. Right-wing trolls “own their hatred”, says George, but the left “won’t stand for even an iota of disagreement, pleading for kindness while masking their own intolerance in sanctimony”. In one of the novel’s least subtle moments, Elizabeth posts a tweet with a string of hashtags that includes both “#BeKind” and “#DropDead”.
Beverley might tell her ghost writer that the world can be divided into good guys and bad guys, but real life is more complicated. Boyne also suggests that it’s possible for people to learn. Although we’re not shown how he becomes enlightened, George goes from referring on-air to “coloured people” to giving an eloquent explanation of the distinction between that term and “people of colour”.
The Echo Chamber is no righteous rant; it is relentlessly funny. Questions of identity provide a rich seam for Boyne’s satire. Wilkes defines himself as non-binary and says he won’t be labelled. “I labelled you as a complete moron from the moment I met you,” George responds. “Must we label everything?” asks Nelson, when he tells his therapist he is in a relationship with a man and enjoys having sex with him. “Does that make me gay?” “It probably does, yes,” she replies.
Like Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and Patricia Lockwood’s Nobody is Talking About This, both published this year, The Echo Chamber explores how social media has changed the way we think and behave. In the first two novels, their narrators are what one journalist has called both “critics and captives” of social media: they recognise its shallowness but can’t — or don’t want to — break free of it.
He may still be on Twitter in real life, but in The Echo Chamber, Boyne is all critic. There is none of Oyler and Lockwood’s fragmentary narratives and online in-jokes — this is wilfully old-fashioned farce, brilliantly executed.
Its playfulness and conscious absurdity are in sharp contrast to the delusion and inflated sense of importance that characterises much social media discourse. Take Wilkes’s advice to Elizabeth on using it to effect change: build up as big a following as possible and “[make] them believe in you, even if you have no knowledge or training in your particular subject. That’s how Jesus did it, after all.” When she points out Jesus wasn’t on social media, he retorts: “Only because it wasn’t around then. But can you imagine if he’d tweeted from the cross?”
Wilkes — a character who deserves his own spin-off novel — later has a Damascene conversion and leaves social media. “The fact is, when you sign up for an account and accept the terms and conditions, there should also be a warning attached: And this will make you miserable,” he tells Elizabeth. “Actually, you should tweet that, that’s some solid wisdom there.”
Another critic and captive: it’s hard to escape the echo chamber.
Fiction: The Echo Chamber by John Boyne
Doubleday, 424 pages, hardcover €18.99; e-book £9.99