Joanna Kavenna is a brilliantly unpredictable novelist: whatever you think she might do next, she doesn’t. After novels dealing with depression (Inglorious), with maternity (The Birth of Love), with quantum physics (A Field Guide to Reality), she turns her formidable talents to the most pressing topic of these days: our digitally enmeshed lives. In terms of its stylistic innovations, Zed is a tour de force... Zed is a novel that takes our strange, hall-of-mirrors times very seriously indeed. It is a work of delirious genius, and a book to turn to the next time GoogleMail suggests you respond to emails by clicking “No thanks!” or “Yes, let’s!” or any other phrase with an exclamation rather than a question mark.
Zed sweats with wit and vitality, and reads like the work of a writer relishing her task. It also transcends its moment. For beyond its commentary on our present age – its technologies and pathologies – it can be interpreted as a cautionary tale about the havoc wrought on us by those who cannot accept that we will never be immortal, omniscient or transparent (to each other and ourselves). Slippage sits in every system; control is a chimera.
Philip Womack JULY 26, 2019 Print this page0 As the promise (or threat) of artificial intelligence encroaches, the question of what distinguishes the human mind from a sophisticated algorithm grows ever more pressing. The title of Zed, Joanna Kavenna’s absorbing and timely novel, refers to King Lear’s “unnecessary letter” as an unknowable quantity: the way that people, after behaving predictably for years, can suddenly go crazy... Kavenna’s writing brims with manic energy, using relentless logic to show just how bizarre an algorithm can be. If the book has a fault, it’s that it presents this world as a fait accompli: it’s difficult to imagine that being imprisoned for a crime not yet committed would be met with little resistance. Zed plunges into potential extremes, and reminds us that in all our faults, we cannot be reduced to a series of 1s and 0s. At least, not yet.
It’s chillingly believable, but Zed is also extremely funny, especially when the hitherto compliant Veeps begin to malfunction. All the characters — Guy, his UK aide Douglas Varley, the security agent Eloise Jayne, and the last newspaper editor standing, David Strachey — must hack their own way back to sanity. It might be too late, for them and for us. The novel runs out of steam at the end, as though exhausted by its own ingenuity, but nevertheless Kavenna remains one of the most brilliant and disconcerting British writers working today.
Zed picks apart, with piercing clarity, how little people think about offering up their data, and how blithe we may be about who gathers it at the other end. Kavenna’s brilliance is in casting her futuristic dystopia in nostalgic form. The novel nods to Philip K Dick, but it owes a great deal to his near namesake, Charles Dickens. (One of the Veeps is even named “Little Dorrit”). Kavenna’s plot is wonderfully Victorian, too... Near the end, Strachey takes refuge in a tumbledown bookshop, where he scans mouldy volumes by “almost forgotten authors… winners of the long-defunct Booker Prize, still bearing their little stickers… with their musty peculiar smell, so nostalgic… reminding him of childhood.” Strachey, here, seems to be questioning the novel’s purpose in a posthuman age – and Kavenna is asking her readers to do the same. One answer is to be found in the quality of her writing. In a world in which, as her narrator puts it, “blankness” has become “normal, even requisite”, Kavenna creates, in these pages, her own tender virtual reality... Fiction, she suggests, is necessary because its intelligence is real, not artificial. Human imagination allows for the singularity of people, for characters which elude any algorithm. The result is an idiosyncratic, joyously page-turning thriller – and one of the cleverest books you’ll read this year.
While all this is fun and erudite, it comes at the expense of character development and emotional connection. I found myself longing to feel an Atwoodian gut-wrench. Or something — anything other than remote intellectual curiosity. For readers who like to nod at clever references, the imaginative Zed will be a delight, and it will no doubt gain many admirers. Those, on the other hand, who crave novels with complex, believable characters who grow, might find it all a bit relentless.
Another requirement of dystopian fiction is consistency of vision. Luckily Kavenna is a Very Intelligent Author. Her imagined world is convincing (except for the flat whites, perhaps: coffee trends change so quickly) and darkly humorous. She remains at a quizzical remove from the action, meaning that, for the most part, the reader doesn’t much care about the characters, but Kavenna’s satire has bite all the same and often rings uncomfortably true.
Imagine a denser, intellectually chewier and very British version of dystopian tech satire The Circle, by Dave Eggers, and you’ll have some idea of this. Beetle, the internet giant at the heart of Zed, is a horrifying Google/Apple/Facebook hybrid... Free will, determinism and quantum theory are all grist to Kavenna’s mill and, while the rabbit holes she peers down can be dizzying, Zed manages to be snort-inducingly funny, too.
Needless to say, it’s also chilling: not least because it’s set not in the far-off future, but in 2023 . . .