The Echo Chamber by John Boyne review – Hogarthian remorselessness

John Boyne is angry. And with good cause: il suo 2019 YA novel, My Brother’s Name Is Jessica, was monstered by an online social furore. Having only ever intended it as an empathic exploration of transitioning, he found himself accused of “misgendering” and “decentring” and many similarly internet-fuelled misdeeds.

Still wounded (and still harassed), Boyne has therefore cast aside the sensitivity and compassion for which his writing is rightly known and instead opted to channel the spirit of late-period, mouth-frothing Tom Sharpe. Certainly, this new novel comes out with both barrels blazing: his targets are the smartphone-addicted, the click-obsessed, the “like”-fuelled, and all those who bend the knee in obeisance to social media’s frenzied demands.

Standing atop this pyramid of unlikability is George Cleverley, a Parkinsonesque chatshow host and self-declared national treasure. It’s he who makes the Jessica blunder when, tweeting in support of his solicitors’ receptionist who is transitioning to become Nadia, he makes the mistake of referring to her as a he and brings down the fury of the thumb-driven commentariat.

And it could so easily have ended there. Ma, no (and maybe here Boyne recalls his own initial misstep when he fuelled the Jessica shemozzle by replying). Invited on to the Six O’Clock News to make his public apology, Cleverley bursts out of his management-imposed contrition like a latter-day, anti-trolling Peter Finch in Network. Ripping into the ludicrousness of the criticism that has been levelled at him (“My own son is named after Nelson Mandela, for Christ’s sake”), he saves his most lethal venom for those levelling the criticism: “Every person vying with everyone else to see who can be the most affronted, who can show that they’re the most woke … Well, eff Twitter, Sophie! Eff Twitter!” And it can only go downhill from there.

Nel frattempo, further down the Cleverley pyramid (based in a five-storey house in Belgravia), wife, Beverley, is passing her ghosted romantic novels off as her own work; eldest son, Nelson, feels secure only when passing himself off in uniform – nurse, construction worker, policeman; daughter Elizabeth is passing herself off as @TruthIsASword, an uber-troll who attacks any and all, including her own father (but at least garners sexual release from it); and youngest son, Achilles (“And I named the other one after a Greek homosexual!"), lures middle-aged married men into near-dalliances and then stings them for five grand a clip.

And this is all before we get on to Beverley’s affair with her Ukrainian dancer from Strictly; Nelson’s new therapist who accepts the patient regardless of her recent affair with George by whom she is pregnant; and Lord Husbery, a hunting-shooting BBC director general, who is apparently proud to say his loader is a “nancy boy”.

In other words, don’t look to The Echo Chamber for restraint or for subtlety. Infatti, the incontinence that is the hallmark of social media seems also to have infected Boyne. There really is almost too much plot in this book, and there are worrying carelessnesses. A sprinkle of post-pandemic references provides a frisson of nowness, but Guardian Soulmates seems still to be flourishing and No 10 comes out furiously against George’s anti-woke expostulations when we know full well that Oliver “Culture Skirmish” Dowden wouldn’t have broken sweat before rushing to George’s aid. While incidental millennials are mocked for asking “Who’s Al Gore?", Boyne cannot resist allowing his principal twentysomething characters references to Rita Hayworth or the ability to quote Dorothy Parker.

Given there’s a pervading tone of old-fogeyishness in the book, of outrage that’s slightly past its sell-by, it’s to Boyne’s credit that it’s also funny, rumbustious, unstinting and wonderfully Hogarthian in its remorselessness. Ancora, he’s at his most persuasive when he remembers to pull back a little and dissect the real culprits: “I blame Steve Jobs. And that Zuckerberg fellow. All those clever little psychopaths …. They’re the Oppenheimers of the 21st century.”

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