Review: Sociable

It's tough being a millennial in New York City, trying to make rent and get a good journalism gig in the digital potpourri of newsfeeds. Just ask Elinor, the aspiring journalism grad protagonist of Rebecca Harrington's second novel, Sociable (after Penelope). Elinor works as a nanny to pay the bills and lives with her boyfriend, Mike, on a roll-up foam bed in a kitchenless basement apartment on 97th and First. She obsesses about her appearance, her relationship, her poverty, her feminism and her lack of a "writing" career. She considers herself "either an undiscovered gem or relatively fat"; in her mind "she was cool sort of, but not really. She didn't really look that cool."

Mike, too, is an aspiring journalist, stuck in a fact-checker job, but he's got his parents' financial help and a nationally prominent magazine columnist mom to grease the skids. He gets his break signing with the trendy long-form news website Memo Points Daily ("which looked exactly like BuzzFeed, which looked exactly like something called"). Elinor gets her chance at the even trendier, where she is a "viral trends editor." Her new boss, a downsized, middle-aged, Jersey newspaper guy, hires her with a shrug because "she could probably tweet and Snapchat and Instagram and make listicles." Welcome to the new journalism.

With an occasional "dear reader" authorial aside, Harrington casts her story in the mold of the old-school novels of Thackeray and Fielding, but she updates their quaint chapter intros and headings (e.g., "In which our hero...") with chapter-opening scorecards of Elinor's personal postings on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Unlike Eliot's Prufrock who "measured out my life with coffee spoons," Elinor measures her life in likes, comments, thumbs-up emoji and retweets. When the self-centered Mike leaves her to concentrate on his writing, she tanks. He predictably ghosts her pleading texts. Worse, she moves to a cheaper place in Astoria, Queens--not only without a kitchen and private bath, but also absent any window or even a closet. Her best girlfriend has little sympathy. Only a work acquaintance gets it right: "That's so dick... insanely dick." And so, "Elinor's life hobbled on--a maimed animal plodding down a country road."

Harrington's got media-based youth culture down cold, with dialogue peppered with conversation-pausing likes and barhopping friends who are "nice girls. They're just very into their phones." Finally, Elinor finds some baby-step redemption when she posts a personal essay about her breakup and it goes viral. She even gets a brief cameo on a TV talk show about the perils of dating in the digital age. Maybe Mike really is the jerk her coworker thinks he is. Maybe Elinor really can make it in the new journalism. Maybe she's not overweight. Who knows? Harrington's diverting Sociable ends ambiguously with that ubiquitous social media scream: "OMG." --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

Shelf Talker: Writing listicles instead of real reporting, Elinor finds her life trending nowhere until she posts a personal essay from the heart that goes viral.

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