***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: this was one of the most agonizing, interminable reads ever, with the author's voice dominating the plot and the characters.
I was surprised by how much this book annoyed me. Not for the political reasons that may have bothered other people (I'm the type of person who militantly opts out of the scanner at airports), but because I felt like it was subtly so narcissistic and cis-heterosexual-male, and actually even sexist. Doctorow wants to teach us something, and he's so busy doing it he slips up and lets his own intolerance and vanity show through.
The good? Well, the idea of writing a book about civil liberties is excellent. So many Americans are willing to give up freedom in exchange for "security," it would be great to get kids to question that model, and to understand just how much it opens the system to corruption and abuse.
Mary Stu. The main character felt like a fantasy stand-in for men who identify as computer-and-gaming geeks and who think they were under-appreciated in high school. Marcus was fake-humble with an undercurrent of hubris, and Ange was his supposedly kick-ass, extroverted, brainy, but nevertheless two-dimensional manic pixie dream girl, only there to admire him and think he's brilliant and buy condoms for them. ("Get down here. I didn't bring a stepladder," she says when she completely forgives him after a long disagreement. Later Marcus says, "I had never been with a girl as...aggressive as her before. It had always been me putting the moves on and them pushing me away." Yuck. He has tried to force himself on girls?) And in the last pages, Marcus even got to have the "good girl" (Van) love him from afar forever, unrequited. Ugh. The whole time I was reading I couldn't shake the creepy feeling that Marcus Yallow was just a masturbatory literary doppelganger for Cory Doctorow. Now that I think of it, "Marcus Yallow" and "Cory Doctorow" are almost a slant rhyme.
Female images (and racial and sexual tolerance). There are other ways in which women are subtly undermined. First and foremost, their characters are superficial to the point of non-existence. They are here exclusively to move the plot along or to highlight how attractive and heroic Marcus is. Masha is badass and nothing else. She is a plot device only: a way for us to see our hero choose preserving freedom in the U.S. over saving himself. Severe Haircut Lady doesn't even get a name until the very end of the book. And what's with that term, "Severe Haircut?" Why is she identified by her grooming choice? It felt a little bit like gay bashing, until Doctorow has Severe Haircut Lady herself verbally bash gays, just to be sure we know she's a hateful person. Meanwhile Marcus casually describes a female bass player in the band The Speedwhores as "a huge fat girl with a dykey haircut and even bigger boots" (even bigger than what?), and the guitarist as "a little pixie of a girl whose face bristled with piercings." So many women are described via their clothing or their body types, while the men's clothes are barely ever mentioned. Upon first meeting Barbara Stratford, a journalist, this is what we learn...what she's wearing:
She was wearing a pair of jeans that were hip enough to be seen at one of the boutiques on Valencia Street, and a loose Indian cotton blouse that hung down to her thighs. She had small round glasses that flashed in her hallway light.
Ange says of the journalists at the SF Chronicle: "They're total whores....In fact, that's an insult to hardworking whores everywhere." This is truly problematic, and not something Doctorow should have a supposedly empowered female character toss off as witty. Yes, some women make prostitution a career out of necessity, and work hard and don't deserve to be insulted. But some prostitutes are coerced, or trafficked, or they're children, or addicted to drugs and can't escape. This is a clueless-male thing for a feminist female character to say. Earlier in the story when they're playing their multi-discipline online game, Marcus steps on someone's toes in a bad neighborhood and says, "I spun around, worried that some crack ho was going to stab me for breaking her heels." Seriously? Crack ho?
And while Doctorow goes to great lengths to show how unfair it was that Guantanamo-on-the-Bay was disproportionately loaded with Arab-looking men, he doesn't even notice himself writing a stereotype in, when the Turkish coffee shop owner says--in quite broken English--that he has been in the U.S. for twenty years. Why not make the man speak fluently?
And finally: Charles. Doctorow paints the Charles character (one-dimensionally) as a rule-following, brown-nosing, narc-ing, menacing kid, and then allows Marcus to bully him mercilessly in what we're supposed to think is a fitting retribution. Instead, the scene where Marcus leads everyone to tie Charles's clothes into knots and urinate on them in the bathroom made me hate the main character, and made me wonder whether Doctorow himself is tolerant of political or social opinions that diverge from his.
Sloppy. Little Brother was also unbearably sloppily written (and edited). Plot points crumble under scrutiny: after Masha takes the photo of Marcus and his friends being "truants," why doesn't one of Marcus's gang take her photo, guaranteeing mutually assured destruction? How could Marcus, hacker extraordinaire, not notice that street poles were now outfitted with speakers? How can they get from Oakland to the peninsula in 45 minutes if the Bay Bridge and the BART tunnel are destroyed? The days that have passed since the bombing are inconsistent (first six, then five). There was also so much telling ("I worried constantly about Darryl and fretted about my other friends"; "This is why I loved technology: if you used it right, it could give you power and privacy"). There is superficial characterization, even with main characters; lots of repetition of ideas; and repeated words in sentences: "I couldn't tell what color [her eyes] were in the dark, but I guessed something dark, based on her dark hair and olive complexion." His mother had two different first names in the same chapter (Louisa and Lillian)...where was the copyeditor? Facts are not checked (IKEA does not make a swing set.) Page 32 has the words fiercely, roughly, dispassionately, cruelly, impersonally, and roughly (again), practically in one breath. Sloppy descriptions abound: "locked my hands to something behind me" really means locked his wrists via a plastic ligature; "his jaw muscles ground around"--well muscles don't grind, teeth do).
Filler. Part of the lack of editing is the inclusion of unnecessary information. Some of it is Marcus acting all *wink, wink* teenagery, and imparting pearls of wisdom that Doctorow thinks it would be fun for the reader to know. ("The farthest bathroom stall is always grossest because so many people head straight for it, hoping to escape the smell and the squick--the smart money and good hygiene is down the middle.") But much of the time the filler is useless description of surroundings. Description should be both beautiful and useful. But I suspect Doctorow is impatient with the concept of writing description, so he uses it to try (unsuccessfully) to lend richness to characters he senses are superficial. For instance, when Marcus visits Barbara Stratford's house he says:
Her place was furnished in Japanese minimalist style, just a few precisely proportioned, low pieces of furniture, large clay pots of bamboo that brushed the ceiling, and what looked like a large, rusted piece of a diesel engine perched on top of a polished marble plinth. I decided I liked it. The floors were old wood, sanded and stained, but not filled, so you could see cracks and pits underneath the varnish. I really liked that, especially as I walked over it in my stocking feet.
This passage is of absolutely no help to the plot. Worse, it manages somehow to be telling. He's telling us that Barbara is a good person based on how she dresses and how she decorates, and that Marcus can identify good people. (Marcus actually uses the words "good people" at one point, a pronouncement he lavishes on the massive group of teens he doesn't even know who come to his keysigning party.)
There was also a plotting sloppiness in having Marcus tell the story of his Homeland Security abduction and interrogations not once, not twice, but five times to various people once he decided to tell the truth.
Structure (conflict). The conflict in this book was exclusively external--bad things are forced on our main character, and on society as a whole. The Department of Homeland Security (and its one-dimensional minions, like Severe Haircut Lady) and power-hungry politicians are the bad guys, inflicting suffering on everyone else--taking advantage of fear to restrict freedom. Marcus never has any sort of internal conflict, and never needs to experience character growth--he is heroically thwarting all wrongs; he always knows the correct, moral answer; he is a natural leader, as much as he protests against that label. At the most, he struggles with whether he should run away (to guarantee his freedom) or stay at home and fight. He tells us he has grown in the end, but really, he's the same clever, street-smart, subversive geek--he's just no longer a virgin.
Structure (secondary characters). Don't expect to grow to love any of the characters in this novel. As I've mentioned, the women are plot points, the bad guys are not just evil they're stupid, and even his dad is there just to be a straw man: to spout the government's security hysteria so that Marcus can chop it down, or to teach us (the readers) about Bayesian statistical analysis. Marcus's best friend, Darryl, ended up being one big MacGuffin (the poor guy) whom Doctorow hobbled with PTSD to keep him out of the picture after his rescue, where he wouldn't interfere with the plot and the glory that is Marcus.
Oh my gosh, I'm so tired of this book, I can't look through my notes anymore. End of review!