The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 7, No 3 (2003)

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Feed: Distastefully Easy to Swallow

Maggie Parish


A book that makes you (rather desperately) want to run and pick up other books? I hesitated at first to describe M.T. Anderson's new YA book, Feed, a finalist for the National Book Award, in quite that way; yet surely the book had such an effect on me. Because it works. We readers are transported into a world where consumerism is all, and all is consumerism. And there's pretty much nothing else left intact. Not anything worth caring much about, anyway.

Best, perhaps, to begin with what there isn't in this Brave New World-ish future. Not much learning, to start with. Titus, the central character, has been to School (which is trademarked) but there is little evidence that he learned anything there: not to speak articulately, not to write (at all), not to make ethical choices responsibly, and not to entertain himself without drivels of diversion, for example. Doesn't matter. He has the feed. The feed (right into his brain) will keep him distracted with endless advertisements and advisements, what to buy and where to buy it being given first priority. It will also enable him to "chat" his friends, who are even more mind-numbed than he is, which almost doesn't seem possible. It will give him images of what "having fun" is, so that he can try (pretty much unsuccessfully) to replicate the experiences he sees. ("Things go better..." and all that)

The feed helps Titus access information quickly, something he must do considerably more of once Violet comes into the story. Violet, the daughter of a professor, is both more educated and less affluent than Titus. Her feed, which is of inferior quality, was installed late for economic reasons. Titus and his friends blithely visit the moon because they are bored. ("We went to the moon. And the moon sucked," the book begins. Pulls you right in, doesn't it?) Violet's father scrapes together sparse resources to send her to the moon for a unique experience. Titus and Violet meet.

And Violet does, indeed, have a unique experience, but surely not the kind that her father envisioned for her. A hacker who objects to the synthetically synchronized society around him violently disrupts the feeds of the people he can reach. Titus, who is so fascinated with the differentness of Violet that he has invited her to join him and his group of friends, thus making her vulnerable to the attack of the hacker, is able to recover from the hacker's attack. Violet is not. We learn that no corporate sponsor will offer financial help to repair Violet's feed because she is an unreliable consumer. Each subsequent chapter indicates to us how much she is losing it. "It" being coherence, energy, bodily functions, and, at the end, of course, life itself. Unsurprisingly, since he has no inner resources, Titus' friendship ebbs right along with Violet's life forces.

What else is missing from this claustrophobic world? A space where one can breathe easily is high on the list. Trash litters not only the inside of people's heads but the landscape as well. When spontaneous lesions appear on people's bodies, they become fashionable. People have even more of them artificially created. The characters can begin to see each others' muscles and tendons.

The sunlight is artificial above Titus' home; conception, we learn, is also artificial.. Since not only Titus' parents but his friends' parents, too, clearly put a large premium on external beauty, it is unsurprising that Titus' parents have requested that their son be endowed with the good looks of one of their favorite actors. Why they chose the name of a Roman emperor for their son we can only speculate about. A Google search shows the Roman Titus as competent, conniving, and occasionally cruel. But educated. Definitely. Intelligent, even. Still, there is a quality that Titus seems to share with his namesake, a casual sense of unquestioning privilege.

That reading Feed would drive me back into books such as Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984, Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Lowry's The Giver seems a phenomenon worth remarking upon. Those other worlds are surely bleak enough; they even share some of the attributes of the world that M.T. Anderson created in Feed. Procreation is carefully orchestrated, for example. Independent thinking is discouraged. And in addition, consumerism is, of course, the new religion in Brave New World. (The "Year of our Ford") But Feed is different from the aforementioned books in an important way.

In each of the books I named, we can identify with a thinking hero or heroine who is determined to struggle stubbornly to find meaning in life, no matter how painfully such a subversive activity is punished. Life outside the central character's head might be regimented, but inside it, where we are living, the world is large, full of existential possibility. We like to live there. What sets Feed apart from these other futuristic novels, I think, is point of view. We are forced in Feed to see the world in the limited way that Titus sees it, and being inside Titus brain was, for me, a very uncomfortable experience.

Curious to find out how YA or twenties' readers reacted to Feed, I sought some opinions online and earthworld. One younger email respondent (who I have never met outside of cyberspace) liked Feed so much that it made good sense to invite her to write about the book here, which she graciously agreed to do. In response to my expressed reservations about the way the characters talk to each other, Julia Michaels replied , "As to the narrator's stunted vocabulary, I must break the bad news to you: that is how most teenagers today talk." High school students who I have interviewed about Feed confirm this unhappy reality; they have all told me that they know people who talk the way the characters in Anderson's book talk.

When I put Feed in the hands of the high-school son of some friends, for example, he made a similar point. "I know kids like that," he said. An eco-buff himself, he was particularly struck by the environmental issues that the book raised. He liked the book, but not quite as much as some of the high fantasy and science fiction that he reads.

A young woman who is roughly his same age, a true lover of high fantasy, responded differently. She told me that as soon as she began Feed she wanted to put it down, that she read it only because she had promised me that she would, and that she did not like it at all. This, I will confess, is not so very far from my response to my first reading of Feed.

My second reading of Feed made me see it more clearly as the on-target savage satire that it surely is. Why, I wonder, did I pull away so quickly from my initial immersion? Too close to home is one guess. Not only have I met an occasional voice like Titus' in the many Freshman composition papers I have read and graded over the years, I can even think (far) back to college keg parties and remember the same attenuated perspective in the conversations of some of my dates. There were times when it felt as if Monday morning couldn't come soon enough; I wanted the world to open up again!

But I have a second theory about why I initially rejected Feed. (I read it after there was considerable online discussion about it; then I quickly donated my copy to the nearest library.) I simply wasn't ready to change paradigms. And most of us are not, most of the time. Habitually, I mute advertisements on television. I always keep MP (meaningful print) near at hand, even when watching the Leher Report, so that I can change media quickly. Online, I click away advertisements before I see them. We accept solicitations neither by telephone nor at our door. I did not want us all to be living in a Feed-like kind of world; therefore I denied that we were.

An author who has forced us to take a closer look at ourselves has accomplished something. I hope that Feed circulates well in the library to which I gave it!

 

Maggie Parish

 

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Volume 7, Issue 3, The Looking Glass, September, 2003

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"Feed: Distastefully Easy to Swallow" © Margaret Parish, 2003.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680