SPOOKS, a self-published novel by the pseudonymous writer E.M. Quangel, is a roman à clef about the world of hipster journalism centered around Vice Magazine. That SPOOKS is effective satire is attested to by the way one of its targets, the “artist, activist, writer and entrepreneur” Molly Crabapple, has recently gone out of her way to “dox” Quangel, and try to get her fired from her job. While Crabapple argues that she outed Quangel as an act of spontaneous outrage over Quangel’s views about the civil war Syria, I wouldn’t be surprised if SPOOKS also had something to do with it.
While you don’t have to be familiar with the feud between the upwardly mobile Crabapple and the communist Emma Quangel to appreciate SPOOKS, it helps to be familiar with social media. In fact, the more addicted you are to Twitter, Facebook, live streaming, or Instagram, the better you will understand Quangel’s novel, which grounds its dystopia in the class conflicts that get carried over from “real life” to the Internet.
SPOOKS is set in Brooklyn in the not so distance future. New York in the year 2031 is a more extreme version of the New York of Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio. Just having a place to sleep costs most of your monthly income. The police are a heavily militarized, occupying army. For a recent college graduate lured to Brooklyn or Manhattan by the promise of an upwardly mobile career path and an active social life, all the good things about the big city are tantalizingly close, yet unreachable to anybody without a trust fund or the right connections. Caroline, an underemployed, over-educated writer of 25, has three masters degrees, works 14 hours a week at Starbucks, and lives in a 50-square-foot micro-apartment on Atlantic Avenue.
Probably the best thing about SPOOKS is the way it dramatizes the false promise of the Internet. Social media is not democracy. It is an illusion of democracy, a world dominated by a small number of well-connected players with ties to big corporations and to the military industrial complex. The more time Caroline spends online, the shittier her life gets, or rather, to be more accurate, the shittier her life gets, the more time she has to spend online to make it bearable. One day she attracts the attention of a social media star named “Amanda Abbey,” a thinly fictionalized Molly Crabapple. Abbey invites Caroline to a “burlesque show” then offers to read some of her “long form writing.” After a brief perusal of Caroline’s work, Abbey convinces her friend Dan Hemingway to hire Caroline as a contributing editor at a new publication called Dilettante, an “edgy” new publication that’s funded by individual subscriptions to its writers.
Suddenly, Caroline’s life improves. She gets to live in a real apartment, not a 50-square-foot box, has access to good food, even wine, which in 2031 is far beyond the means of all but the most privileged, and, above all, to an active social life. Caroline, who chooses to ignore how Amanda has chosen her more because she’s young and attractive, because she’s an effective salesperson, than because she’s a good writer, becomes a big time social media star and alternative, left journalist. Eventually we realize that she’s not a real journalist at all, but a minor, and unwitting cog in the national security state. Earlier in the novel we had learned that Caroline had a degree in “Security Studies,” was $2,236,781.38 in debt for student loans, and had unsuccessfully applied for jobs at the CIA and the NSA. Her reporting, which involves wearing “Spectacles,” a more sophisticated version of Google Glass, will be familiar to anybody who’s followed the development of “live streaming” through the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements. Caroline provides an unfiltered look at the story, but her subscribers, and, more importantly, the police and the various national intelligence agencies, can also monitor her. Eventually her “reporting” seems more like snitching than journalism.
Soon we learn that Amanda Abbey, and the various hipster journalists around Dilettante, are anything but real journalists. Rather, they are upwardly mobile opportunists acting the part of left journalists for fame, high-salaries and access to the rich and powerful. If you argue that “well, that’s what real journalists are”, you would be correct. Quangel just takes it to its logical conclusion. Why hire cranky old men like Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather when you can hire pretty young girls who will double as prostitutes? Eventually Caroline gets an “opportunity” to visit a “CIA black site,” a trip that’s as tightly manipulated by the US military as the “embedded” corporate media was manipulated in Iraq. While Caroline learns the truth about CIA blacks sites from one of her “trolls”, a young man who uses the codename “Peter Parker,” Quangel makes it clear that even if Caroline had tried to do any genuine reporting, it would have been impossible. She’s not a journalist. She’s an actress.
To me, the last quarter of SPOOKS, which ventures into the same territory covered by the classic film The Manchurian Candidate, reads more like an exclamation point than any further development of the plot. Quangel has already done such a good job of showing the upwardly mobile left media to be populated by opportunists and frauds, that it almost seems beside the point. Why would the United States military even need to put a character as shallow and venal as Caroline through an elaborate, and costly, series of paces designed to manipulate her into reporting what she would have probably reported of her own free will? But perhaps I’m just not being cynical enough. The United States military has so much money, and so much control over the corporate, and the alternative corporate media that it all becomes a game for them after awhile. What’s more, the military industrial complex, which is both highly familiar to the average American — a lot of people serve in the military — and yet operates undemocratically and in secret, has to wage a constant battle against reality, to stage a long running and ongoing public relations campaign to justify the amount of money they spend and the number of people they kill.
What better spokesperson for the military industrial complex than an easily duped “leftist” journalist just as eager for money and access as anybody at Fox or CNN?