Digital Discordance

By Lou Ann Walker
Helen Schulman Denise Bosco

“Come With Me”
Helen Schulman
Harper, $26.99

Like her previous novel, the best-selling “This Beautiful Life,” Helen Schulman’s “Come With Me” investigates the complexities that technology has introduced into the late-20th-century world, removing the tangible, altering the predictable. That 2011 novel looked at the aftermath when a 15-year-old boy receives an unasked-for sexually explicit video from a 13-year-old girl. Baffled, he sends it along to a pal. The video goes viral. With a click, their lives and their parents’ lives become an abomination.

Now, seven years later, Ms. Schulman is exploring even more deeply the nexus of STEM and the human heart. How rationales have seemingly been altered, yet how they remain precisely what they were. Although with far more valence. Think of the current headlines regarding the richest husband and wife in the world, extraordinarily tech-savvy, surrounded by the techiest-savviest geniuses, yet he sends out texts to his new paramour revealing his nerdy-naif, in-puppy-love self. There is no guarantee of privacy. Of course men and women have been hearing errant phone messages for decades, discovering wayward written missives for centuries. And before writing existed, there must have been plenty of telltale clues. 

In “Come With Me,” we meet Amy and Dan, a discordantly married couple living in Palo Alto with their carrot-topped yet undifferentiated twin boys, family-named Thing One and Thing Two, and their teenage son, Jack. Dan is an out-of-work print journalist. (Reader, please note how exceptional it is to experience pages in hand in 2019.) Dan spends his days chatting online with other out-of-work journalists, and shaking a fist at the world that doesn’t appreciate him. (There’s a little quickie porn surfing slipped into his days as well.) Amy works part time for her college roommate’s 19-year-old son, Donny, a Stanford junior who is creating a “multiverse” in which people can use an algorithm to discover the what-might-have-beens of their lives. 

Ms. Schulman opens with Amy rousing herself for a predawn run, lifting her husband’s laptop off his belly, tiptoeing through the house so as not to rouse Squidward, “their psychotic Vizsla,” checking on Thing One and Thing Two, and then heading over to Jack and his sweat-permeated space. “In her oldest boy’s room, Lily was the only one up, still lounging in her bed, her loose blond ponytail fanned out seraphically against her flowered pillowcase, blue eyes so bright they startled, black mascara melting prettily beneath her lashes, daisy-eyed. Jack’s girlfriend. She and Amy waved to each other via Skype, Jack’s laptop permanently open on his desk, angled toward his bottom bunk.” 

Ms. Schulman’s skill and dark humor are evident here. For a millisecond the reader thinks Lily might be another dog. Then Lily is painted in such detail that we believe her to be tucked in with Jack’s duvet under Amy’s roof, only to learn that Lily now lives in Texas. The image above her bed? A Mapplethorpe calla lily that Jack had found online and sent her for her 16th birthday.

When there’s a family dinner? Lily’s front and center on the table next to the condiments via FaceTime or Skype. When Jack showers? Yup. Indeed, when they’re actually in physical proximity geographically, they are barely in physical proximity. So begins the predawn of the first day of Ms. Schulman’s carefully compressed work. Three crucial days in the family’s life. Worlds colliding in three acts. 

Donny will persuade Amy to do the beta testing on his algorithm — what will become the speculative fiction scenes of the novel — disclosing so many of her deepest secrets, her terrors, her sorrows, a panoply of emotional betrayal.

Subsequently, Dan becomes enamored of Maryam, a transgender photographer who is obsessed with Fukushima and the devastation that a giant tsunami and nuclear criminality have wrought. Maryam is difficult, egocentric, and when they travel to Japan he is utterly invigorated by his passion for reporting and for Maryam. When crisis hits back in California — no spoiler alert, but Dan madly tries to make connections to return when he hears EMTs coming for Jack, who is in respiratory distress. Dan has gathered his belongings and is standing outside at the train station when Maryam comes to convince him to stay the night. 

“The travel time save is truly negligible. You might as well come back with me and get some sleep.”

“He couldn’t breathe! My son couldn’t breathe! And I wasn’t there to help him.”

“He heard your voice. The EMTs gave him oxygen. . . .”

“I wish I was with him,” Dan said.

“His mother is with him. . . . He’s safe. He is loved. . . .”

Dan shook his head. “You don’t understand,” he said. “You don’t have children.”

Maryam stiffened. It was cool out, she was barely dressed, and she was shivering. From anger or from the cold?

Knowing that he has hurt her, Dan apologizes. 

“I really hate that shit, Dan, as if we all have to be identical to understand the texture and taste of what are bedrock human feelings. One might think that you did not believe in the divinely human and universal qualities of compassion, sympathy; the ability to empathize is a gift we are all born with. It has to be beaten out of us, and regularly it is. But it has not been beaten out of me.”

Helen Schulman was recently interviewed as saying that “Come With Me” grew out of her fascination with what has actually happened in Fukushima, as well as her distress upon reading about the number of teenage suicides in Silicon Valley. Clearly her night vision goggles have also given her profound insight into what is happening with young people and technology. As a professor of writing and fiction chairwoman at the New School’s M.F.A. program, she has firsthand knowledge of how young people are handling their devices, fitting their world view in with their current reality, and how they shape one another’s lives.

When Dan finally is en route to the States, he texts his wife his infidelities. As if the distance of a text, and its immediacy, as well as the time lag before person-to-person confrontation could protect him. What ensues could easily have been catastrophic. We race through the pages, fearing for the future of these people who read as exceedingly real. We wince at their foibles. And, yes, we root for these humans.

There is no made-for-TV ending to this virtual and real world. Ironically, it is Donny, the socially inept character, who brings about a realistic resolution.

Lou Ann Walker is the director of the M.F.A. program in creative writing and literature at Stony Brook Southampton and Manhattan.

Helen Schulman is a regular visitor to Amagansett, where she has family.