Connect by Julian Gough review: Inelegant but full of tantalising intelligence
A boy and his mother face the question of what it means to live humanly in a hyper-digital age
Connect author Julian Gough has produced a work that provides many of the sleepy consolations that accompany one’s sense of the familiar. Photograph: Alan Betson
Welcome to the near future. Welcome to an era in which refrigerators remind you to take your daily medication; in which cars are powered by moving on the surfaces of solar-panelled roads; in which surveillance and delivery drones descend into streets that are hideously vulnerable to biological attacks, freak weather occurrences, civil unrest.
Here, buildings are constructed without first-floor windows in order to protect their inhabitants from floods. Here, you can incur fines by choosing to take responsibility for the control of your own vehicle. Here, you can monitor loved ones by way of transmissions of their heartbeat to devices tethered to your wrist. Here, by means of advances in virtual reality, you can experience amorous interactions with the beings of your dreams. And, here, in true reality (if there remains such a thing as true reality), you can transform your appearance by means of the phenomenon of the e-skin. Welcome, reader. Welcome to the world of Julian Gough’s latest and mesmerically frictionless novel, Connect.
It is a world that, for all the vigour of its imagined innovations, is marked in its stylistic qualities (and in the imagined thoughts and actions of its characters) by a near congenital anti-talent for sterility. On almost every page there is an event observed, or an emotion described, that is so powerfully inattentive as to seem calculatedly – almost pharmaceutically – soporific.
This is a fictional landscape in which we encounter characters who resolve to “get this nailed down” despite there being “no wiggle room” while reminding themselves: “don’t push it. There are bigger issues.” When those bigger issues present themselves they are often confronted by a woman who can hear “her heart pounding”, indulges when occasion affords in a “wry smile” and occasionally “laughs hysterically” before taking time to reflect on how things have “got wildly out of hand”. Only after suffering these forms of vibrant torment are we able to join her as she “kicks off her shoes” and “rolls her eyes”.
The story on which this deluge of clichés is afflicted is propelled by the narratives of Naomi Chiang (the woman already mentioned) and her son, Colt. Colt is a handsome and inept young man who is awkward, has never been kissed, “has hardly even spoken to a girl”, and who, as an expert coder and hacker, believes that “you can’t observe a thing without changing it”. His experiments in this sphere cause him to develop an interest in attempting to neutralise the time-lag that exists between the virtual world and the real. His father, Ryan, left many years ago.
Naomi is a research scientist who, unlike her son, believes that the world can be observed unchanged, and who devotes her energy to conducting private experiments designed to explore the ways in which the latest scientific advances might be employed to assist the regrowth of severed human limbs. Concerned about the implications of her conclusions (and the uses to which they might be put), she has resisted publishing her findings. Yet it is not long before her son orchestrates a situation – part of a project that will either allow himself to gain a heightened level of human understanding, or obliterate him entirely – that allows him to distribute them to the world.
As a result of this leak, Colt’s father and the nation’s secret and apparently omniscient security organisation insert themselves into the lives of Colt and his mother in order to attempt to stifle and acquire the findings that Naomi’s research looks set to unleash. The ensuing drama forces Colt to abandon the world of virtual reality in which he has so assiduously and ardently engaged, and confronts both him and his mother with the question of what it means to live humanly in a hyper-digital age. Will Colt be able to establish a distinction between the mediated and unmediated world? How far will his mother go to protect him?
The resulting novel is laboured and inelegant, yet full of tantalising intelligence. The questions it poses are magnetic and arresting. What, the book asks, are we to make of our inability to live now? What is the significance of the human attachments we are unable to perceive? But these potentially fecund fields of inquiry yield little in the way of intellectual succour. One of the tasks of the novelist is to establish a sense of connection by means of the anomalous image and the unique story. Gough has produced a work that provides many of the sleepy consolations that accompany one’s sense of the familiar. But he does little to embody or awaken us to the vibrant particularities that bequeath the strength of what it really means, in the end, to connect.