March 9, 2016

Book Review: "Viral," by Emily Mitchell

Viral, by Emily Mitchell

By Emily Mitchell
W.W. Norton
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

First things first: if you're the kind of person who believes all great fiction should be timeless, and that the best path to timelessness is removing all references that might tie a text to its time, maybe you shouldn't read Viral. I don't know if people think that way about fiction, because it's such a goofy view I feel like I'm setting up a strawman just by referencing it, but Viral is very twenty-first century in its concerns. It contains a piece about friendships on Facebook, another piece about internet dating, a third about how quickly technology moves, a fourth about the state of contemporary America, a fifth about a dangerous viral video (not one of my favorites, although it does contain a great lyrical passage. I won't reveal it because it's a spoiler, but look for it on page 195), and a sixth about the fragility of relationships in the modern world. Plus it's called, well, "Viral." That's right, we're in the realm of topical fiction, and that's not everyone's favorite style.

I have to confess, as someone who ended up enjoying this book, I was a little uncertain about what to make of the first two stories here. In particular, I wanted the opening story "Smile Report" to be a vicious attack on the "stomp-down-all-your-negative-feelings" side of Western culture, and I was a little disappointed when it downplayed that aspect in favor of cheap parallelism. "On Friendship," a multi-segmented story that tracks the dissolution of several friendships, is better, but also a little hit-or-miss; I was drawn to the bit about disagreements, but the satire of the bit about Facebook friends felt a little forced to me. As I went on, I found both the satire and fragmented stories much stronger. "States" combines the two into a hilarious send-up of how America functions and dysfunctions nowadays (the "there is no state of Louisiana" bit that starts on page 73 is especially funny), riffing on and recreating this country's mythology. Her absurd sense of humor also works well on "Biographies," where she churns out a series of fictional biographies for herself.

Yet I find Mitchell at her best when she's writing about anxiety and overthinking. She does this twice, and you could accuse her of repeating herself if she didn't take different angles for the two of them. "Guided Meditation" is probably my favorite story here. It's delivered in the form of a meditation tape, which of course means you'd expect it to present some sort of idyllic nature scenario, but she bends the whole affair with a story about a man in a meditation class "with piercings and tattoos and Celtic looking-patterns" who would "flip up into a shoulder stand and stay like that the entire time" (174) and derails into the narrator's personal stories from there. It's pretty funny, and she mines insomnia-induced loneliness and fear for good material over the course of "If You Cannot Go to Sleep."

Overall, I enjoyed Viral. Mitchell's conversational voice and good humor carried it through. She gets stuck on the occasional snag ("No-No," about the Japanese internment camps of World War II, rings a little false to me), but it's a fun read with a good amount of seriousness poking through.

Out of 10: 8.0

Read even more about Viral: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, March 9, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |