It has been written (though not by me) that the days of the mass market paperback are numbered. I’ve noticed with dismay some shelf shrinkage at the local markets and all-purpose pharmacies. I hate to see this; I was introduced to reading adult fiction and genre works through paperbacks, and still have many of the ones I acquired when I was a wee lad a half-century ago. Regardless of what the market soothsayers predict, paperbacks keep on coming, and peppered among them are first-time publications of original novels. Even a cursory glance over the displays reveals that there is some great storytelling to be found on those wood and wire racks.
"Richtel raises a number of interesting and frightening points about the uses and effects of technology, particularly with respect to brain development, among other issues. The result is an entertaining but sobering tale that is all but impossible to put down, except to take notes. And you’ll want to take notes."
One of those is the newly published offering by Matt Richtel, a name that should be familiar to you even if you don’t read genre fiction, particularly techno-thrillers. Richtel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his reports on “distracted driving,” which is a catch-all term for those things people do when they should be concentrating on navigating a few tons of steel at 80 mph or so down an eight-lane highway with hundreds of others similarly situated.
Richtel’s novel, THE CLOUD, is a cautionary tale, labeled as fiction but a little too close to our world and time for comfort. It is told in the first-person present voice of Nat Idle, an award-winning journalist in San Francisco who is still reeling from the end of a relationship that terminated for reasons he doesn’t quite understand. On the eve of receiving his greatest journalistic recognition to date, he sustains a near-deadly fall onto some subway tracks. The incident at first appears to be an accident. However, suffering from a concussion as a result of the fall, along with confusion and memory loss, Nat becomes more convinced that the incident was caused deliberately by a man, apparently a vagrant, who stumbled into him.
There is a silver lining to Nat’s mishap, though, a comely one named Faith who witnesses the incident and ministers to him immediately. In the aftermath of the incident, Nat finds a piece of paper that his possible assailant was carrying; it mysteriously bears his name and that of a woman. A quick Internet search initially reveals that the lady had died some weeks previously, but Nat discovers she is very much alive. When he again researches her name online, he learns that any documentation of her alleged death is nowhere to be found. His search for the man who bumped him leads him down a series of blind alleys and strangely contradictory discoveries, ones that bounce him around a claustrophobic San Francisco like that silver orb in your favorite pinball game. Nat finds that he not only is unable to trust almost anyone, he also can’t trust his own perceptions about almost anything. Before the story concludes, Nat’s perceptions --- and those of the reader --- are challenged, with the truth, startling as it is, laid bare for all to see.
THE CLOUD put me in the mind of the type of novel we would have resulting from a collaboration between Philip K. Dick and Michael Crichton (in substance if not in form). Richtel raises a number of interesting and frightening points about the uses and effects of technology, particularly with respect to brain development, among other issues. The result is an entertaining but sobering tale that is all but impossible to put down, except to take notes. And you’ll want to take notes. As a bit of a lagniappe, a short story by Richtel titled “Floodgate” is included. Even casual readers will find much to digest in this latest work from one of our more prescient minds.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 8, 2013