I have waited 13 years for a novel from Yannick Hill. We were classmates on the creative-writing MA at the University of East Anglia, where he held us spellbound in workshop and the general consensus was that he was the writer to watch.
The years that followed saw novels and plays from the class of 2003 – Tash Aw, Naomi Alderman, Laura Bridgeman, Diana Evans and me – but I sometimes wondered what had become of Yannick. What a thrill, then, to get an email announcing Versailles.
Of course with high expectations comes the risk of disappointment, but we hadn't been in touch since 2003, so he'd never have to know. I don't usually review fiction, but Versailles tells such a compelling story about the way we live that I asked The Irish Times if I could explain why this impressive and imaginative novel deserves to reach a broad and diverse audience.
Casey Baer is chief executive of the world’s largest social network: “All he ever wanted was a family to love and love him right back.” But passion has mutated into obsessive control, and Versailles, the beachfront mansion with 100 rooms, where his wife and two children could “have everything they wanted”, has instead become a fortress where 1,000 cameras record every moment of their lives.
Casey’s American dream is turning to nightmare on the first page as his daughter, Missy, flees Versailles on her 16th birthday. She knows that “Missy Baer #Running Away . . . is a story that would break the internet”, but Missy has deleted her online profile and cut loose from her millions of followers. For the first time in her life she discovers the joy of privacy, the thrill of experience that goes unrecorded except in memory.
Her escape is prompted by something unnamed that her father did, “an act of betrayal”, and Missy speeds away in her SUV on the trail of a mysterious email invitation that lures her into a shadowy world of trolls, black pills and a cult called Deep Sky.
Back in Versailles everyone is looking for Missy.
Her mother, Synthea, once a brilliant industrial designer, is trapped in dream and a medicated haze, and she drifts drugged through empty corridors and her children’s lives. Missy’s twin brother, River, spends his days in his room, impersonating moms on the internet. He feels most alive when he is “pretending to be someone else”, because “what’s the fun in being yourself?” River musters all his tech skills in a frantic online search for his beloved sister that will unlock Versailles’ dark secrets.
Meanwhile, Casey sits in his control room, monitoring his family and the millions of his users on his network whose data passes through “his vast air-conditioned server farms . . . their love and hate, their boredom and anxiety, hopes and bad dreams”.
But rage simmers just below the surface, and Casey “likes to keep the danger close”, so when his live feeds fail he vents his anger at 130km/h by totalling his custom-made car and shooting out speed cameras.
Children of the internet
Versailles is a beautifully imagined version of a world we already inhabit, where our love affair with technology is transforming the human experience.
The Baer family are the “children of the internet, their lives mapped out on the shimmering social networks”. Years of research by Sherry Turkle, a social scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shows how we have moved from “conversation to mere connection”, too busy to have the kind of conversation “in which we give each other our full attention, the kind where we allow an idea to develop, where we allow ourselves to be vulnerable . . . where intimacy and empathy develops, collaboration grows, and creativity thrives”.
River and Missy are like the millennials Turkle interviewed who have grown up with “parents who are physically close . . .but mentally elsewhere . . . who talked on their cell phones and scrolled through messages as they walked to the playground”.
Versailles sometimes calls to mind the fictional spaces of Don DeLillo's recent Zero K, Bret Easton Ellis' Imperial Bedrooms and Lunar Park and JG Ballard's Super Cannes. There is a crucial difference, though: Versailles illuminates and unsettles, but it does so with great warmth and humanity.
This has a lot to do with the twins. Like the teenagers in Paul Murray's Skippy Dies, Missy and River are lovingly rendered in their naivety, vulnerability, humour and courage. Love may be sealed away and unexpressed in their "frictionless world", but for the siblings and their mother, Synthea, love is remembered and redemptive, stored in vivid, sustaining memories of childhood intimacies.
“Money can’t buy you love but it can buy you fear”, and fear is all that Casey has left towards the end, when the locked doors of Versailles are flung open to reveal the “black box of his soul”. His terrifying visions – brilliant, violent and erotic – reveal the blaze of his imagination and dark desires.
I'm astonished that the big publishing houses let Versailles slip through their fingers and into the arms of Unbound, which introduced crowdfunding to the book-trade business model and now has a distribution arrangement with Penguin.
Its stylish production reminds us of the sensory pleasure of the physical book: everyone who has come through my house in the past few weeks has fallen for the exquisite holographic cover by Yehrin Tong, whose design clients include Apple and who has designed covers for Michael Faber’s recent fiction.
Versailles's power lies in its broad appeal as a fable for our digital age – for parents and teenagers, for the corporations to which we surrender our privacy and that are sculpting our technological futures. Which makes it the perfect Christmas gift for Mark Zuckerberg.
Aifric Campbell is a novelist; she teaches creative writing at Imperial College London