I’m a little self-conscious about reviewing The Closer I Get. The main antagonist is, among many other things, a blogger, and her online life is dismissed early on as though it arises from her not having done as well in life as she thinks she ought to have. Paul Burston’s novel describes the modern online mob: a mass of anonymity that chases this way and that, turning on a whim.
Ostensibly The Closer I Get is a psychological thriller about cyberstalking. Evie Stokes, the stalker, uses technology to keep tabs on writer Tom Hunter. Initially benign, her attentions become unwelcome and the book opens as legal proceedings against Evie begin. The relationship is in some ways symbiotic: Hunter uses as the basis for his new book a manuscript by Stokes which is itself fan fiction of his own novel. Nothing is as it seems and the two leads are unable to tell the truth to themselves, let alone the outside world. But, as Stokes says, if to use Google about a stranger is to stalk, then everyone stalks. And everyone spins, to a greater or lesser extent. Where is the line drawn? An old or over-flattering photo on Grindr? A fake Twitter account? What does it mean to have secrets? What does it mean to curate our own present? (And would that sentence have meant anything twenty years ago?)
My word, Tom and Evie are both terrible people. It is a mark of Burston’s story-telling that we don’t mind: we’re drawn into their claustrophobic, unnerving half-reality. We flip between standard third-person narration, presenting Tom’s side of the story, and Evie’s diary. No punches are pulled and we really experience these contradictory and self-centred characters. It isn’t as though they aren’t interesting: there are some witty references to the Smiths and Blondie and there are some amusing vignettes about publishers and publishing and we wonder – given that the novel Tom Hunter is writing – based on Stokes, based on Hunter, do keep up – is about a stalker and it is all rather meta – just how much of Burston’s own experience is in these pages. (We know that he has himself been on the receiving end of stalking activity.)
The energy of the whole enterprise, down to its breathtaking ending, would make this worth reading on its own. But I can’t help feeling that to call this a book about social media and about online bullying is to sell the whole thing short. Tom and Evie are not really that different offline than on it. The pleasures and highs afforded by online activity – the thrill of the like button and so on – are mirrored by Tom’s drinking and smoking and running. Evie is banned from the Guardian online comments section; she is just as obnoxious in person. Her experience online is bruising but so was her upbringing, long before Twitter was dreamed of. And the homophobic abuse thrown at Tom online is, we find, no different from the abuse he has deflected his entire life. Colin, his elderly neighbour, was attacked with a baseball bat in Clapham. Burston never quite asks, but which do we prefer?
Evie Stokes writes, of the off-line life:
As if social interaction is only ever ‘real if it’s experienced face to face
But the reverse is true, too. I think that The Closer I Get is most interesting when it challenges us to be consistent. Everyone behaves badly online, the book seems to say, but do you actually behave any better in person? Or does that awful behaviour actually reflect the real you? It’s almost impossible to avoid spoilers, but to be honest, by the end, some extra kindness would have helped at least one character a treat. Not that we would necessarily be any nearer the truth. But if there’s one thing we learn from the amazingly twisty ending, perhaps it isn’t truth but trust that we need.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.