Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 272 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Through some strange act of happenstance, I read Helen FitzGerald‘s latest novel, Viral, immediately after I finished Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. It proved an interesting companion read, for in FitzGerald’s revenge thriller the main character does something that would have put her behind bars in Wood’s dystopian tale: 18-year-old virgin Su-Jin Oliphant-Brotheridge indulges in a sexual act — well, 12 of them to be precise — in a Magaluf nightclub while drunk.
The debauched behaviour is filmed without her knowledge or consent and then shared on the internet.
So far, twenty-three thousand and ninety-six people have seen me online. They include my mother, my father, my little sister, my grandmother, my other grandmother, my grandfather, my boss, my sixth year biology teacher and my boyfriend James.
The story traces the fallout on Su and her (adopted) family after the film goes viral, as well as fleshing out Su’s back story. And not everyone behaves as one might expect.
As a story of sexual shaming online, Viral has mixed messages. Like most of FitzGerald’s earlier novels — she’s got 12 to her name; I’ve read Dead Lovely (2007), My Last Confession (2009) and The Cry (2013) — it’s a very dark, noirish tale best described as “edgy” and “ballsy”.
Even though most of her novels, or at least the ones I have read, deal with big issues — such as criminality, drug taking and media exploitation — there’s often a moral ambiguity at their core. FitzGerald is definitely not a writer who sees things in black and white; she’s there in the margins, looking in the grey areas, teasing out the bits that don’t quite fit in the boxes.
And that’s exactly what she does with Viral, which explores sexual shaming and, in particular, the misogynistic behaviour of young men on holiday:
The notion that Xano could be every boy and every man had crossed her mind more than once. Would a nice boy like Su’s James have filmed the scene in the Coconut Lounge? Would a good boy like Frieda’s son Eric have said ‘You fucking cow. Suck it, whore’? Would the boy next door, literally, Barry, have uploaded it? It was too sickening to dwell on, but perhaps Xano’s behaviour did not set him apart from his peers.
She also explores ways in which the criminal justice system deals with, or fails to deal with, these incidents. I’m not sure FitzGerald’s novels should be taken too seriously, because in this tale Su’s mother, who is a sheriff in Scotland, discovers that the only justice she can get for her daughter is to take the law into her own hands. And, in becoming slightly crazed over this idea, her sense of fairness and balance is overshot by her deep abiding need for revenge. What results is a kind of black comedy in a thoroughly contemporary setting.
Fast paced, but preposterous plot
The story eventually becomes a kind of fast-paced, over-the-top, psychological thriller, the kind that makes you keep turning the pages into the wee small hours even though you realise the entire plot is completely preposterous. Su, who is Korean by birth, goes on the run in Spain, but finds it difficult to hide because of her appearance, while her sister Leah, her lifelong sibling rival, is sent to find her. Meanwhile, her mother, Ruth, who is filled with anger, uses her professional connections to try to track down the men who gang “raped” her daughter, all the while plotting how to avenge them. The poor father figure in the story simply gets shunted aside, only to fall victim in another bizarre plot twist.
Did I enjoy this novel? I’m not sure. I had such mixed feelings as I read it. It felt distasteful and dirty (although, to be fair, that’s how I usually react to FitzGerald’s work), but I kept reading it purely to find out what would happen next, a sign of a good thriller.
Perhaps I was most uncomfortable with the idea that the central character was Korean, because it played into the stereotype of Asian girls either being slutty or studious. I didn’t much like the revenge element either, though I appreciate without it the book would be an entirely different one. On the positive side, it does make an important point: that these “crimes” aren’t treated as such and are often blamed on the victim, whose reputation lies in ruins while the perpetrators get away scot-free.
So, while Viral didn’t tick all my boxes for a high-quality high-brow read, as a piece of juicy genre fiction with bite and a healthy dose of black wit, it’s very good indeed. And as a exploration of social media and misogyny, cultural identity and sibling rivalry, it’s got plenty of issues to discuss, making it perfect for book groups.