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Wildlife, By Joe Stretch

Caught in the network

"It's amazing what we can do with computers nowadays" is a mantra that cuts through Joe Stretch's second novel like a short circuit in a motherboard, endlessly sending the same signal. It's heartening to discover that the contemporary novel can still do amazing things, too. In his debut, Friction (2008), Stretch quickly announced himself as the sexy chronicler of the grotesque, yet in this second novel he takes a step back from the shock tactics of an eager debutant and delivers a serious meditation on technology and individualism. It is Ballardian in scope, and equally as exciting as his brutal debut.

Set in a world where "TV is dead", Wildlife follows four dispirited and lonely individuals looking for a way out of their boring "real" lives. Art school drop-out Anka is now a presenter for late-night "Quiz TV" on "Channel Manc". Janek, a session musician, has been "waiting his whole life for something to matter". Roger, a blogger, is literally metamorphosing into technology and Joe, morbidly fascinated with his ex-girlfriend's excrement, will do just about anything to get her back.

The online temptations of the -social network "Wild World" hang over this group like a blue sky of possibility. This new technology, a feeder of vainglorious egos, pulls these characters together. Wildlife explores the determined fervour and crippling pointlessness of their yearning for individualism. The idea that a true individual can never find peace with the self is given added gravitas when their worlds come crashing down around them. Except that, online, there is no one to pick up the pieces.

Wildlife succeeds in its assured surveillance of the myriad possibilities available, much more interesting than the the characters' own lives, on a burgeoning technology. This dark and twisted exploration of ego reveals life as we would like it to be, uploaded for our pleasure. The novels of Joe Stretch, like Ballard's before him, transmit back to us our continuing inability to grasp hold of modernity.