A lot of the writing advice out there focuses on what NOT to do. “Why it works” is my occasional series where I take books I love and try to pinpoint what the author does especially well.
Feed was a much-loved and much-awarded young adult novel when it was published way back in 2002. What’s incredible about it now is how totally prescient it turned out to be.
Long before the advent of social media and when a lot of people were still on dial-up modems, Anderson predicted the warping power of hyper-tailored advertising and an always-connected online culture with uncanny accuracy.
But instead of focusing on its prescience, as remarkable as it is, I want to focus on other elements of Feed that I think make it work.
Building intimacy through quirky gestures
The book hinges on the relationship between two teens, Titus and Violet. Anderson does an amazing job of building a genuine feeling of connection between them. Making a relationship come alive is tricky, but Anderson does it splendidly.
One tool for making this happen: showing two characters understanding and mirroring each other’s weirdness. Here’s an exchange between Titus and Violet after he remarks on how much she writes:
I looked at her. “You’re one funny enchilada,” I said.
She nodded real quiet.
“Doesn’t your hand get all cramped up?” I asked. “Don’t you end up like, hook-hand?” I made hook-hand. She hook-hand. We pawed each other with hook hand.
She shook her head and smiled.
These are sweet and dorky gestures. With this mirroring and understanding, Anderson shows how they’re on the same wavelength.
Even the parents are affected by the setting
Feed has a very, very slangy style (The opening line: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck”), and I’ll be honest that I struggled with it at times. But there’s a very good reason for the heavy-handedness of the slang and Anderson utilizes it to great effect.
There’s an incredible payoff when Titus’ dad arrives to pick him up in the hospital after an accident, and you realize that even his dad is using the slang of this world, even more immaturely than Titus:
He stood there staring at me for a a few seconds, and I was like, “What? What?“
He seemed surprised, and then blinked. He said, “Oh. Shit. Yeah, I forgot. No m-chat. Just talking.”
I was like, “Do you have to remind me? What’s doing? How’s Smell Factor?”
“Your brother has a name.”
“She’s like, whoa, she’s like so stressed out. This is . . . Dude,” he said. “Dude, this is some way bad shit.”
This has an amazing effect. Rather than showing the typical contrast between childish slang and adult speech, when Titus’ dad uses even stronger slang you suddenly realize the extent to which the entire world has been warped by the Feed.
Letting characters be jerks
Without giving away too much of the plot, Violet eventually becomes ill and Titus really struggles to know what to do, partly because the Feed has so thoroughly warped how people deal with problems.
Rather than making Titus a magically kind and understanding person, Anderson just lets him struggle, to devastating effect. He’s a jerk, but we mostly forgive him because we can see how much he just doesn’t really know what to do.
Anderson mirrors some of the hand gestures from the beginning of their relationship, but this time to emphasize the distance:
We flew back. It was night. I had never been someplace with that much of angry in the air, like it was crammed. Like the whole air was buzzing. Like all of the lights on the dashboard were teasing us. We were hurtling forward, and it was like we were fueled by how much we hated each other.
She was crying. It made her ugly. She crossed her arms on her lap. I thought how ugly she was. Her one hand was limp, like a flipper.
I realized it wasn’t working anymore.
I closed my eyes. There was nothing but air in between us. I could say I was sorry. I was almost saying it. We were flying, and I was close to saying it, if only she wouldn’t say something sarcastic, something snotty, something about how she had watched us all and tried to be as dumb and fun as us. She looked really alone, sitting there in her seat, with the harness around her, and her crippled flipper-hand cradled between her legs so I wouldn’t see it.
This is a pretty brutal scene, and Anderson does just enough to show Titus’ competing impulses to retain some of our sympathy. But even though Titus is the narrator, Anderson isn’t afraid to let him be a jerk.
You can see why Feed was an award-winning novel. Even with a slangy style and a very sci-fi premise, Anderson is able to craft depth and nuance through these subtle moments.
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