In a now-classic episode of The West Wing, deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman discovers he has an online fan club with an active discussion forum. Back in 2001, when the episode aired, men in Josh’s position weren’t all that internet-savvy, so it’s his assistant Donna who has to warn him not to post on the site, or risk the wrath of the web folk who may or may not be off their meds. Predictably, Josh disregards Donna’s advice; his charming offline bravado comes across online as thoroughgoing arrogance, chaos ensues, and the b-plot ends with press secretary C.J. Cregg giving him a stern talking-to. “These people on these sites are the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest!” C.J. says.“I’m telling you to open the wardroom window and climb on out before they give you a pre-frontal lobotomy and I have to smother you with a pillow.”
Over 10 years later, it’s a rare person who doesn’t have a basic awareness of the inhabitants of the online landscape, transformed from whoever they are in daily life into the kind of quietly desperate people who take part in internet forums and the trolls who live in comment boxes. (Writing this review for a website with a comment box, I know I’m asking for trouble.) That person is the heroine of Lottie Moggach’s mordantly well-observed debut, Kiss Me First, which could be the first great novel about the way the internet has become a part of our lives, what it means, and how it has fundamentally altered the way we get along with each other.
The novel centers around a lonely, alienated young woman called Leila, who finds a community of like-minded people in an online forum called Red Pill (yes, that is a reference to The Matrix), where members discuss questions of epistemology (“how much can we really know?”), existentialism, and individual freedom. Finding a community where she can belong is a relief after the vexing labyrinth of social niceties that Leila simply cannot navigate on Facebook. Of the online antics of her 73 friends, she notes: “It seemed incredibly stupid and pointless, yet they all responded to each other as if these things were interesting and important and funny … misspelling words like hunny, or abbreviating words for no reason, and putting XXX at the end of everything they wrote,” Leila says. “I just didn’t understand how everyone seemed to have mastered it.” Through Leila, Moggach shines an unflattering light on the shallows of the London social world: the cheating husbands who work in the city, the “sweaty people” in Shoreditch bars, the fake tans of the Britons in Bilbao. I’ll never enter Topshop again without thinking of Moggach’s description of the girls streaming in there “like orcs going into battle.”
Red Pill is run by an Ayn Rand-loving, creepy happy mastermind called Adrian Dervish, the kind of man whose online signatures are “inspiring” quotes like “all men live life, few have an idea about it,” and who takes advantage of Leila’s dead-earnest commitment to an individualist ethos (which he calls libertarianism, though real libertarians may not agree) to convince her to help a troubled girl called Tess kill herself.
Tess wants to die, but she also wants to spare her friends and family the trauma of dealing with her suicide. This is where Leila comes in: she is to learn everything there is to know about Tess so that she can impersonate her in emails and on Facebook, slowly writing and posting less and less frequently until —like taking a “dimmer switch” to her life —she has completely faded from everyone’s minds. Meanwhile, Tess will have slipped off somewhere and disposed of her body so that it will never be found. As an alibi, Leila invents an imaginary life for Tess on the Canadian island of Sointula, in far-flung British Columbia, so difficult to reach from London that even the hardiest travelers among Tess’s friends won’t try to visit.
Tess is —was —beautiful, charming, eccentric, unreliable, creative, and manic, all things Leila is not, and as she begins her project of pretending to be Tess, Leila performs her work with a zeal born of total bedazzlement. Soon she finds herself enamored (she calls it “in limerance,” a term she finds on the internet when looking for some explanation of her own “cognitive and emotional state”) of one of Tess’s ex-boyfriends, who is corresponding regularly with “Tess,” and Leila’s obsession leads her to take irrational risks in real life that she’d never have countenanced before, becoming more and more like Tess. Adrian, as we all might have guessed, turns out to be a bad, bad man. The result is less a “gripping psychological thriller,” as the book’s advance publicity would have us believe (in an attempt to position the book as this summer’s Gone Girl) than a gripping psychological novel which is more interested in Leila’s desperation and loneliness than in fulfilling some generic obligation.
Moggach, for all her killer observations on the way we live now, isn’t trying to persuade the reader of the reality of her fictional world; she seems to understand that something always escapes to undo the reality effect, betraying the author behind the curtain. This is evident at those times when Leila seems a caricature of herself—her relentless pursuit of her objective reminds me of the narrator of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Raised in the age of the internet and employed testing computer software, Leila has lived her life on the screen of a computer, yet is utterly unfamiliar with the worlds behind the screen. She has to Google things like Joan Crawford, Scarface, and Monk’s House (“that house Virginia Woolf lived in.”) When a leak springs in her bathroom and she has to pay a kingly sum to the plumber, she Googles “how to get cash quick.” It’s almost overkill, but Moggach makes her point. She’s internet savvy, but also completely innocent of its ways. Leila mentions using Google Maps to get somewhere at one point, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she had printed one off her computer.
In this way, Kiss Me First is about the limits of the internet. Although it seems omniscient, its very make-up deprives us of access to that knowledge. We can never really know the people we’re talking to online, or if it’s really them at all. But it is also a novel about the limits of fiction. Well-paced and unwavering, Kiss Me First is a compelling yarn about a timely subject, but it is also a reflection on the yarn itself, and in this regard the novel transcends its early 21st century moment. Leila’s impersonation of Tess points up the artificiality of the fiction writer’s job, trying to pass for someone else, studying them, talking like them, never entirely getting away with it because, after all, it’s only fiction. In that way fiction is a bit more like Second Life than Facebook. The key is in a section where Moggach describes Leila’s approach to her task: she finds a website for fiction writers and follows its advice, creating a back story for all the characters, making sure her Tess stays true to her real personality. Moggach is, in a sense, calling into question the construction of character and narrative, even as she is asking us to believe in her own.
This is what is most chilling about Kiss Me First. Online, we want to be ourselves, but not ourselves; we want to come across as better than ourselves, and we all agree to that deception as long as we all get to partake in it. When we read, we want to know if what we’re reading is a true story or “just a story.” Any blending of the real and the fictional is deeply unsettling, yet as much as we want to know what’s what, we also want the kindness of the lie.