What the book does exceedingly well is take apart the internet – as a mix of infrastructure and the people who created, fund, run and exploit it – and cast a cold eye on each element. The fast-paced narrative is full of interviews with some who were there as each constituent part of the system emerged into place. Ball gets out of the way and lets these individuals tell much of the story; generally a good thing, but many long passages of direct, sometimes rambling quotation could have benefited from editing and allowed more room for perspective and analysis.
Initially it feels as if this is too familiar ground, with characters and social issues explored this way in television series such as The Wire. Yet so finely nuanced are the individual voices and so visceral in particular are the scenes of prison life, with its hierarchies and fault lines, that the writing accumulates a heft that forces you to care about the pair’s fate. And everyone, says Gattis, from those caught up in crime to lawyers with careers to make, is trapped by the system.
This is a novel I began to read with misgivings, and indeed found the early chapters hard going. But it became compelling and the second half is very good indeed. One should add that this is possible only because the groundwork had been well laid by intelligent and cunning plotting. It is also, I should say, a fair novel. Gattis recognizes that The System is under enormous, near intolerable, strain, not least because of America’s drug laws and the demand for drugs which promotes criminality, just as Prohibition (of alcohol) did in the 1920s and 30s. The wonder is not that so much goes wrong and The System so often breaks down and is brutal and corrupt, but that, despite everything justice is sometimes done. The System is a crime novel and a thriller, but, like the best in the genre, is invites you to think as well as feel.