By Emma Jane Unsworth
Jenny McLaine has to face reality. She and her hotshot photographer boyfriend have broken up, and the trouble is she knows that confessing this to her boss at the women’s website the Foof will lower her social capital, placing her job as a columnist at risk. And this isn’t even the 35-year-old’s only concern; she’s also dealing with roommates, an overbearing mother and Kelly, the best friend who is at this moment refusing to help her with the real task at hand: posting a photo of her croissant to Instagram.
The image has already been perfectly filtered and given a white frame (“for art”); now all Jenny needs is the caption. She considers “CROISSANT, WOO! #CROISSANT” — but it’s not quite right. She tests out a few others. “CROISSANT! #CROISSANT”; or maybe “CROISSANT.” Or just “CROISSANT,” no period. Which one, she must decide, best telegraphs the way she wants her feelings about the croissant to be perceived?
It is a paradox of social media that although we are inundated at all times with the thoughts and opinions and activities of everyone we’ve ever known, we can never unequivocally know why. What a person is thinking, why they said what they did, why they chose that exact punctuation, what their hope was for this small bit of output. Emma Jane Unsworth’s new novel, “Grown Ups,” grants you precisely that voyeuristic look into the hideous unseen machinations behind the posts. And it is deeply unsettling.
Although it’s a comedic novel — and a truly funny one — it’s less of an escape than it is a set of “Clockwork Orange” metal eye clamps, forcing you to examine, in paragraphs and paragraphs of hand-wringing over exclamation points and emoji choices and the exact right timing of a fav, your own profoundlyunhealthy relationship with social media. Oh God, you think, as Jenny scrolls through her Instagram obsession Suzy Brambles’s list of followers, again, to make sure she is still among them. Is this what I’m like?
The novel is structured, too, to suit the internet-addled mind. It unfolds in bright, punchy bursts of often nonlinear storytelling, interspersed with text messages and email drafts, dialogues and monologues. It whooshes your attention along with the strength of a constantly updating feed. When Jenny forgets to respond to a desperate text from Kelly in a blur of checking and updating and checking and updating — one in a series of thoughtless actions chipping away at their already fragile friendship — the reader too gets swept up in the distraction. What were we talking about again? Oh, never mind.
“Grown Ups” succeeds in not just accurately portraying this modern obsession, but in tenderly revealing what might be driving it. It is as much about the online sphere — how relationships are made and broken and forgotten there — as it is about those things that live wholly outside of it: our bodies, grief, what it is to be a mother, what it is to be a friend. Jenny’s online life and real life are at odds, each fighting for domination, but the scrolling is not without reason. Scenes from the past show she wasn’t always so consumed, and in the present you’re eventually able to predict when she’ll retreat into her obsession. Her use ebbs and flows with life, and the lack of it.
The book is likely to leave you as exhausted with social media as a nightlong Twitter binge, which is an odd feeling to be left with after reading a novel. But it’s also not a wholly unuseful one, particularly if the lingering bad taste keeps you, even briefly, from looking at your phone. By delving into the complicated psyche of a woman we might call “very online,” “Grown Ups” shows us there is hope to be found. Just maybe not in the place we’re always looking.