***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
On my third attempt at reading this book, I finally made it past the first chapter. Previously, the teen-speak had driven me nuts. I suspected there were artistic reasons for the speech to be colloquial, and I wanted to trust Anderson (because he's brilliant, so of course his choice was deliberate), but the slang was so thick that it seemed at first glance to be self-conscious and forced, maybe even tricking Anderson into sometimes losing mastery of the editing; and aside from that, it simply annoyed me. Finally, I picked up the audiobook version, hoping that a narrator could walk me through it.
Boy was I wrong about the language. It is perhaps what makes this book. It underlies Anderson's entire, unrelenting depiction of human beings as complicit (somewhat unwittingly) in their own technological demise: if every person has Merriam-Webster's and Wikipedia in quick reach in their brain feeds, why bother learning language or history? Knowledge becomes superfluous because everyone has access it. Complex language and thoughts, and the ability to recall history and forge meaningful memories are all eroded. The United States has become a country of "bros." As Titus tells us, why memorize facts about the Civil War if you can look it up to find out what battles George Washington fought in? (!) Characters--even adult characters like Titus's dad--use the word "thing" in excess, having lost nouns.
"Marty said, 'It will be a, a, you know, fuckin', it wil...' He kind of wiggled his hand."
FEED is technically sci-fi, but not oppressively so, set in the future when Americans all have the Internet on a chip inside their brains--the "feed." Anderson published it in 2002, when the Internet was just getting going, so it's a bit uncanny how prescient he was about things: the "feed" monitors your purchases and tailors its advertisements to you individually; it's tied into the limbic system, so it senses your emotions and makes suggestions based on how you feel; you can watch inane programming at any minute of the day, and you can "chat" your friends directly through your minds.
The satire of this book that's related to consumerism is beautifully done, in part because Anderson somehow predicted online purchasing and tailored marketing. It's fascinating that he chose to have the feed be a voluntary device (but one that 80% of Americans choose to have), rather than making it something that's forced on the population, which I think would have been tempting in a "dystopic" story. In this way, he again shows that this is our tendency as human beings--to willingly give up our (in this case mental) freedom, a little at a time. It's painful to see how constrained Titus is in his development, both emotional and intellectual, by growing up with a feed. There are moments of clarity and complexity in his thoughts, but they're (sometimes literally) drowned out by the low-brow commercial furor going on in his mind.
Anderson doesn't flinch in his depiction of Titus: despite the fact that Titus is more sensitive and brighter than his companions, there is no a magical transformation when he meets the more erudite (and more fragile, as her name suggests) Violet. When Violet is dying, it's brutal the way Titus avoids and ignores her. It's heartbreaking when he deletes the memories she has essentially e-mailed to him for safekeeping. He can't face her death, or what it means, until the last moments, when her life is 96% gone--when he himself is opening wide with lesions and the world is collapsing around him, environmentally and politically.
The heavy-handedness of the futuristic world annoyed me just a bit. It's too easy for authors to reach for evil corporations as the cause of pollution and loss of morals. It's succinct, it's pat, it feels politically correct, but it's historically wrong. In fact empires end through political corruption and cronyism, internal strife, a sagging economy, poverty, and lack of education. Regarding destruction of the environment, third-world countries pollute more than first-world countries, and environmentalism is a passionate interest of mostly the wealthy and educated classes. A recent article in National Geographic cites the statistic that three-quarters of the annual Peruvian timber harvest is "illicit"--people without access to jobs and to ownership of property are the ones illegally cutting down protected mahogany trees. (Both of the loggers apprehended in the course of the article defended themselves by saying they're only doing it to survive, and to have work where this is no work.) It would be amazing to see a young-adult dystopic novel that explores in a less pat way the very complicated, slow way that governments and societies fail.
Things I find myself thinking about, long after I closed the book: the way the clone of Abraham Lincoln can still be an idiot, because of how he was raised; the fact that the feed is good for some purposes, and in many ways it's something a sensible human being might enjoy (if it could be shut off or removed at will).
A note on the audiobook: It's actually very cool the way they've brought the "commercials" on the feed to life, with original music and irritating announcers. I love it when producers go that extra step to use the medium well.