In his latest novel, "All This Life," Joshua Mohr captures a digital moment. The author brings together a cast of wounded people looking to simultaneously connect and avoid connection online, proving that social media is in some ways our most human endeavor — we invent that which we need to indulge our tendencies of social anxiety and informational gluttony.
Writing specifically about technology can be problematic, as contemporaneous devices, apps and platforms are sure to become obsolete. But "All This Life" tempers its overt use of such references by concentrating on the human feelings that drive our digital lives.
Mohr's book employs multiple protagonists, each affected by the incident that opens the novel: Jake, a 14-year-old boy, films a group suicide during rush hour on San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and posts the video to YouTube. Noah911, a commenter on Jake's video, is an executive in the financial district and the brother of one of the jumpers. Kathleen, a caricature artist and recovering alcoholic, works on the Embarcadero, but she has abandoned a son in a town outside of Reno. Her son's girlfriend is reeling from hisposting of their sex tape as revenge porn.
These characters' lives intersect in slight but important moments; the narrative becomes an analog of social media. Mohr balances sad realizations with humor and communicates both the cost and allure of technology.
Jake, the youngest character, feels the draw of illusory, intense Internet fame. He sees himself as "a disaster shepherd, and this YouTube page and its contents are his flock. He nurtures them all. He owns this disaster, as any shepherd owns his sheep. Their deaths are his property." Jake, whose parents are divorcing, also finds unhealthy solace on the Internet. But Mohr understands the balm of online life to the injured soul; his book draws meaningful parallels between addictions to technology and alcohol.
The novel is expertly paced and full of action building to a meaningful end. Mohr's brightest moments are his observations of the irresistible lure of online life. As Jake's father, Paul, watches his son's video, he muses that he "can't keep his head right, can't keep his head here, watching this clip because it's reminding him of the days after the September attacks.... There was a kind of pornography to it, a surreptitious yearning to see something vulgar."
Mohr's exploration of all of the shameful facets of digital stimuli makes "All This Life" very much of the moment. Mohr gets it right and it's a satisfying read, even if his digital jargon will turn the book into a time capsule.
"All This Life" is ultimately about love, and often the characters' powerful yearnings to find connection drive the action. This is a book that anyone who has an online presence should read — not to be scared into unplugging, but to consider what it is that we want to accomplish online.
The thing Mohr's work gets most right is that the social media machine is never satisfied. As Jake says, "[a]ll that matters is content. New content. More content."
Partington is a writer in Elk Grove, Calif.
All This Life
Soft Skull: 304 pp., $25