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Charles Foran
Charles Foran

Planet Lolita: A teenager navigates the world of social media and the sex trade Add to ...

  • Title Planet Lolita
  • Author Charles Foran
  • Genre fiction
  • Publisher HarperCollins
  • Pages 240
  • Price $19.99

Stretching as far back as the 18th century and even earlier, novelists have been fascinated by social media. Of course, in the days of powered wigs and form-enhancing bodices, the most popular social media around was the mail. Instead of sexting, young lovers relied on quill pens to dash off steamy missives. Hand-delivered notes weren’t a private matter in those days: letters were so prized that they were often read aloud at both family gatherings and public events. No wonder novelists like Samuel Richardson exploited the rich potential of postage passions by writing the epistolary novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1749), which gave readers the vicarious thrill of reading other people’s mail.

The novel has a natural affinity with social media. Prose fiction is a social art form: it involves the sharing of experiences that are of communal interest. By the very nature of the form, novelists should delight in recording the news (the word “novel” highlighting the form’s love of novelty). It shouldn’t surprise us that Henry James hinged the action of The Portrait of a Lady on a telegram or that James Joyce paid attention to the full communication medley that made up Leopold Bloom’s Dublin (everything from telephones to newspapers to street ads).

We’re living in an age of proliferating social media, with more and more of our day being spent in front of screens ingesting and dispatching tweets and GIFs, sharing comments, thrilling to likes, and being annoyed by trolls. Fiction writers have been of two minds on how to respond to the digital circus. Some, like Margaret Atwood, have gleefully jumped into the ring. Others, notoriously Jonathan Franzen, have disdainfully turned their back on the spectacle, haughtily letting the world know that their literary vocation requires keeping aloof from trivial distractions.

The Franzen approach seems at odds with the very nature of fiction. If, as Anthony Trollope made clear in the Victorian era, the great novelistic subject is “the way we live now” then monastic reclusion is self-defeating.

The good news about Charles Foran’s new novel Planet Lolita is that it bravely takes on one of the main jobs of contemporary fiction, incorporating social media into storytelling, making the swirling currents of digital communication we face everyday navigable by narrative.

CanLit needs to do what Foran is trying with this book: to engage with the contemporary globalized and media-saturated world. Yet the novel is an unholy mess.

Charles Foran is an estimable writer, author of a first-class biography of Mordecai Richler and gifted at capturing the feel of exotic environments. The Hong Kong of the novel is eerily plausible and the ambition of Planet Lolita are wholly commendable. Planet Lolita is set in a near-future Hong Kong, wracked by SARS, and tells the story of Xixi (Sarah) Kwok, a 15-year-old upper-middle-class girl who has a brush, both in the real and digital world, with the city’s sex-work culture. After a chance encounter at the beach with a group of sex workers being smuggled into the city, Xixi becomes obsessed with one of her new acquaintances, named Mary, and tries to track her down via Facebook. This attempted reunion brings the forces of the Triad down on Kwok’s family. Throughout the novel, Kwok’s parents, her mother Leah and father Jacob, are largely clueless about their daughter’s emotions, goals, and actions.

Large swaths Planet Lolita are told in the dialect of social media, bringing in everything from blog posts, Facebook comments, tweets, and text messages into the text. The digital generation divide and the sexualization of young Asian girls are the major themes of the book.

The biggest problem with the book is that Foran has no ear at all for how young girls talk, text or even behave. Neither the tweets nor the dialogue in the book sound like genuine human exchange. (It’s unfortunately impossible to avoid comparing it unfavourably to Gary Shteyngart’s skilfully executed Super Sad True Love Story, which features a young Korean-American woman in a near-future New York whose slangy e-mails make up a large portion of the text.)

Here is Xixi’s older sister Rachel, a university student, offering advice to her parents: “Leah? Jacob? Pay attention for a few seconds. Check out our platforms. Learn where we’re at, who we’re hanging with and planning to meet. Learn how we move from place to place and space to space, silent and quick and beyond detection by your analogue radars. If you don’t know my Facebook, you don’t know me. It’s where us digital kids live, Mr. So-So Cool Kwak.”

Are hip young Asian-Canadian girls really using Facebook as the main site of their online identity? Are they likely to be using Facebook in the near future, the time the novel is set in? If Facebook was so important to them, would they really want their parents to be snooping on it? Do we need a novel warning us of the dangers of Facebook?

Here is Rachel talking to her sister about their bi-racial identity: “Asia rules the new century, SeeSaw. We some lucky fiddy-fiddy bitches.” (As is helpfully explained elsewhere, “fiddy-fiddy” means fifty-fifty, or bi-racial).

As Margaret Atwood has demonstrated with a measure of success in her MaddAddam triology, science fiction is a useful way for a novelist to write about emerging social trends without worrying about getting the lingo or details perfectly right. The stylization of science fiction helps the writer focus on larger trends and not have to worry about exact details.

Foran is much less successful than Atwood because, although his novel is set a few years in the future, Planet Lolita seems not about the future but about the imperfectly digested past. The book abounds with topical and pop culture details from recent history: manga, anime, Sailor Moon, SARS, even at one point Valley Girls. The one inventive science fiction touch is fusion of virtual reality and Skype called Face Time (it’s not clear that Foran is aware that there is an actual form of videotelephony called FaceTime).

Yet if Foran has fallen far short of the goalpost, the agenda this novel sets out is still worth following. However tattered it may be as a map, Planet Lolita still lays out a terrain that fiction needs to explore.

Jeet Heer’s next book, Sweet Lechery, featuring his selected cultural and political essays, will be released later this year.

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