Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Wednesday, August 14, 2019: Maximum Shelf: Followers

Graydon House: Followers by Megan Angelo

Graydon House: Followers by Megan Angelo

Graydon House: Followers by Megan Angelo

Graydon House: Followers by Megan Angelo


by Megan Angelo

Megan Angelo has written about women and television for Glamour, youth activism and social media for Elle and reality TV for the New York Times. In her debut novel, she uses those topics as fodder for her explosive imagination. The shrewd and surprisingly moving result is a darkly prophetic novel that takes an incisive look at women, fame and the future of social media stardom.  

In 2015, aspiring novelist Orla Cadden toils in obscurity at New York City click-bait farm Lady-ish, chronicling celebrity fashion and gossip. She tells herself she's biding time until her big break, but when the washed-up actress she usually covers dies, Orla realizes she's at a dead end. With nothing to show for her career besides an unfinished novel and a long list of throwaway blog posts, she needs help leveling up. Her turning point arrives in the form of Floss, a would-be social media influencer who believes Orla can make her famous. The two young women form an alliance, and Orla uses her Lady-ish position to gain a following for Floss. However, as Floss's star rises, jealousy and mistrust worm into their relationship, and the slippery nature of Internet fame whiplashes their plans more than once. Wrapped up in their own struggles, neither suspects the technological disaster looming over their entire nation, or that their actions will have dire repercussions decades in the future.

"Meet Marlow.... She knows just how you feel." In the year 2051, Floss's grown daughter, Marlow, lives in Constellation, a ready-made community built over the ashes of a wildfire-ravaged California county. In this town, theatrical lighting produces perfect sunsets, the laser-cut leaves on the man-made trees change color at the push of a button and the entire population exists in a state of perpetual reality programming. Government-appointed celebrities spend nearly every moment of their lives on camera feeds broadcast by the new state-controlled Internet. In the world outside, their followers watch, comment and absorb the barrage of advertising messages embedded in the stars' product choices, including food, clothing, medical procedures and pharmaceuticals. Network execs hide themselves among extras to oversee the talent, giving direction the audience never sees. Her pesky emotions smoothed to neutral by Hysteryl, the antidepressant whose manufacturer sponsors her media feed, Marlow goes through the motions of her studio-ordained marriage and accepts that the studio will not allow her to travel outside Constellation. When she and her husband, Ellis, receive the notification that they will begin a pregnancy plot arc, the boutique genetic design process for the child reveals startling information about Marlow's background. Shocked and determined to unravel the resulting mystery, Marlow flees into the real world. However, Constellation won't let one of their biggest stars escape so easily, and with 12 million followers chasing her in what they believe is a planned publicity stunt, Marlow may not find her answers in time.

In chapters alternating between the two time periods, Angelo unspools a dual narrative that carries the current confluence of social media, entertainment and advertising to natural but frightening conclusions. Comparisons to the British television drama Black Mirror naturally spring to mind throughout the story, but perhaps nowhere more so than in Angelo's imagined future. Marlow lives a life in which security comes at the cost of independence. Her contracts imprison her, her options are as limited and controlled as those of a Victorian lady and even her thoughts are partially scripted. The evolution of unobtrusive, embedded smart technology reaches an alarming zenith in "devices," standalone smart jewels that transmit content and messages directly into their users' brains in the first person. If Marlow leaves filming range for the privacy of a bathroom, her device plays the words "I should return to an on-camera space" in her brain as though she thought them herself. 

Floss and Orla's exploits illustrate the dangers of trying to harness social media's power for personal gain. Grabbing the social media spotlight may bring fame, but it shines most brightly on embarrassment and catastrophe. Angelo sharpens the tension by adding a satiric bite that provides a constant reminder that Internet and reality television fame are tricky balancing acts. Even her characters' successes have the precarious feel of watching someone cross thin ice. This portrait of two bright young things living on the edge evokes the precipice on which their world unknowingly teeters as citizens consume digital media voraciously, never expecting it to consume them in return. 

Although fast-paced, Followers will make rich discussion material for book clubs, raising hard questions about the price of celebrity, the ethics of technology use and how much of today's entertainment contains subtle commercials. At the same time, its core sings with emotion. Angelo's high-concept plot hangs gracefully on the framework provided by the interesting chemistry between her characters. Somewhere in Floss and Orla's complicated history lies the answer to the mystery Marlow pursues, unfolding for the reader as she tracks through the clues. An excavation of a complex female friendship as well as a deep dive into the direction social media is pulling the U.S., Angelo's first outing is sharp, perceptive and ultimately hopeful. --Jacki Fulwood

Graydon House, $26.99, hardcover, 432p., 9781525836268, January 14, 2020

Graydon House: Followers by Megan Angelo

Megan Angelo: The Future of Social Media Stardom

(photo: Alison Conklin)

Megan Angelo has written about television, film, women and pop culture, and motherhood for publications including the New York Times, Glamour, Elle, the Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire and Slate. She is a native of Quakertown, Pa., and a graduate of Villanova University. She lives in Pennsylvania with her family. Followers, coming from Graydon House January 14, 2020, is her debut novel.

How did you develop the concept that became Followers?

Followers started in a small moment that ended up figuring into the book. I was writing in my journal, and in the vain way of a mom and a writer, I thought, "Someday my kids will read this! And my grandkids!" Then I realized that no, they probably won't, because I write in cursive. Where I am, kids don't learn cursive in public schools anymore.

Immediately I thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to write a story that hinges on someone not being able to read something crucial that's written in cursive?" Obviously, that story would have to be set in the future, and I had never thought before that moment about writing something set in the future. But I knew that whatever future I built had to be more grounded in things like the cursive revelation--the kind of thing your grandparents tell you about, not the kind of thing that's true sci-fi--and the book started coming together from there.

How did your journalism background inform your plot?

I blogged for years at a number of different places. The site Orla works at isn't based specifically on any of them. It's more of a click-driven horror show come to life. I had a lot of fun writing Ingrid, her boss, because she became a mouthpiece for the rules of blogging, which can be so demoralizing. Headlines always sound like a breathless, annoying person charging into a restaurant and collapsing at your table interrupting everyone with their drama. Traffic rules all. There's a snarky undertone, especially when it comes to celebrity stuff. I think that's starting to fade a little now. But I'm someone who made money in the past being snarky about stars, and sometimes it was fun, and other times I'd wonder, "What would this person think if they saw this? They're still a person."

Marlow's entire life is a live broadcast. What would be the worst life experience to have sent out to the entire world? Why do you think we're so fascinated by the lives of others when we cringe at the thought of exposing our own lives?

I'm going to say the first thing that came to my mind: I think the worst thing to have broadcast would be pulling your Spanx on.

I think that while traditionally people loved consuming gossip but valued their own privacy, we're starting to come into more of a balance between those two things. Instagram in particular has given us the opportunity to cast our own lives into the light that used to be reserved for celebrities. We can make our breakfasts and our parties and whatever look glamourous and heightened. And we're sharing more. Nobody reads those user agreements. When we hear the occasional report on how much of our data is being collected and distributed, we get spooked for a second and then go back to our normal lives.

I'm including myself here. I'd go so far as to say I've even taken advantage of some privacy-breach type stuff. I have Googled something I want to find. Let's say it's a pair of black boots. If the search results don't satisfy me, I put my phone down and think, "I bet the next time I pick up my phone, Instagram will put a bunch of black boots in my feed, and that's how I'll knock out this black-boot thing."

The thought-altering "device" introduced in the book is brilliantly creepy. What gave you the idea of such an intrusive piece of technology?

I've always hated holding my phone. I find it so clunky and inconvenient. I don't like typing, I don't like having my hand curled around something and my head bent over it. I don't like the way it looks to have it out on a restaurant table or during a conversation. I get annoyed when someone has their text alerts on deafening volume and they keep going off. I was coming from a crotchety place, thinking about how I'd make all of this more elegant and less intrusive. Once I'd solved all those problems, I thought, "Great! No more ugly phones!” Then I thought, “Yeah, but it's really creepy that the solution I just came up with means a phone that would see into your thoughts."

About six months after I sold the book, Elon Musk started talking about "Neuralink" computers that would work a lot like the devices in Followers do. You can always count on Elon Musk to back up your wildest ideas.

Your characters feel so realistic even though the story is largely about their environment.

Each of these women is wholly motivated by something they want for themselves. They're not trying to save the world, or do something for someone else, or even to win someone else over romantically. I love how pure and unapologetic they are in their ambition. Orla wants to be great, Floss wants to be known and Marlow wants to be free. For each woman, to some extent, the other two are standing in the way.

What will we see from you in the future?

I'm working on another book. It's about a trio of mothers who attend the same exercise studio and all have ties to a murder that happens in their town. In the aftermath of the murder, they're called upon to help avenge it, and in the process they discover that their barre studio is not quite what it seems to be. The book is about regular, largely invisible women getting wrapped up in something dangerous and extraordinary, and it's also about race and politics and guns and motherhood. And barre! It looks at the history of women in America during the last century through a speculative lens. --Jacki Fulwood

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