Two worlds, two identities, one reality: Nikesh Shukla explores the impact of the internet on lonely lives

Max Liu met the fiction television writer in ‘meatspace'

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The Independent Culture

When I meet Nikesh Shukla, on a sunny morning in Primrose Hill, north London, he says: “This feels a long way from home.” It’s only a 20-minute train ride to Harrow, where the 34-year-old grew up, so what does he mean? “This isn’t my scene.”

Nor mine, but we’re here because Shukla has a meeting later today about a film script he’s writing, so in a way our glamorous surroundings are his scene. He’s an interesting combination: a lively internet presence but slightly diffident in person, self-promoting yet self-effacing, suspicious of “literary fiction” but friendly with authors and publishers. His second novel, Meatspace, is concerns divided selves, the tension between the personas we project through social media and how we are IRL (“In real life”). “It asks,” he says, “‘which is my true identity? The one who tweets? Or the one who lives in the wake of that tweet?’”

Shukla’s first novel, The Coconut Unlimited (2010), was about teenage rappers who were trying to forge their identities through music. By re-imagining the community he grew up in, it tackled race and captured a milieu that hadn’t been seen in fiction before. Meatspace, which means the physical world as opposed to cyberspace, is narrated by Kitab, a recently-dumped, thirtysomething author who, like Shukla, hails from a large, London-based, Indian family. “Lots of modern novels are set in worlds I don’t recognise,” he says. “They’re about white people with middle-class problems. Literary novelists don’t write about now, they set fiction in the time before email and text messaging.”

Pugnacity is attractive in young novelists and unsurprising (before committing himself to writing in his mid-20s, Shukla wanted to be a rapper), but is he right? Plenty of fiction, including recent novels by Dave Eggers, Ned Beauman and Tao Lin, incorporates the ways that digital technology is altering our lives, and last year’s Granta Best of British Novelists Under 40 list emphasised the multiculturalism of new writing. Shukla is more convincing when discussing his own work. “I want to show British Asians having universal experiences. I’m ranting but a lot of my anger about the way that my people aren’t represented went in to Meatspace.”

His mother died in the same week as The Coconut Unlimited was published, an event that fed the genesis of Meatspace: “After my sister and I had to close my mum’s Facebook account, I became interested in the way real life intersects with social media. Two years later, I was having a comical discussion with a friend about bow-tie tattoos and, when we Googled them, the first person that appeared looked exactly like my friend. We found this guy’s Facebook and Twitter profiles, and it was striking how much information about him was available online. The story emerged from there.”

He wrote Meatspace on his iPad, while commuting by coach to London from Bristol, where he lives with his wife. Those journeys helped him imagine Kitab’s state of mind: “He’s lonely and his social media obsession isn’t helping. He confuses talking online with genuine human interaction.” Shukla regards the internet as a tool for finding information and promoting his work but admits: “I understand why novelists ignore it because many quest narratives can be upended by a Google search.”

Meatspace features amusing blog extracts from Kitab’s brother, Aziz, who gets a bow-tie tattoo and goes to New York to find his doppelganger. “The blog is raw, like Aziz is talking directly to camera. Internet language is embedded in everyday vernacular. You just have to listen and be unafraid to throw it into a book.” Will technology eventually make Meatspace look dated? “It might but letters are a common mode of communication in Jane Austen’s novels and we still read them.”

More than once he interrupts himself to check: “Am I going on?” He asks if I think he should be less self-deprecating, says he isn’t as clever as other novelists and regrets publishing Meatspace on the same day as several “great” writers have books coming out. Two of these writers are his friends, and I’ve already seen him express this concern on Twitter, but Shukla’s pride in artistic solidarity is genuine: “I’ve come up through the DIY route,” he says of his readings, podcasts and the rap video he recorded to promote Meatspace. “I’ve surrounded myself with cool people, friends like Evie Wyld and Joe Dunthorne, who make me want to be a better writer. I’ve made things happen. Last year, at the Southbank Centre, I read The Time Machine, my novella about learning to make my mum’s recipes, with two of my aunts cooking on stage. I want to create a platform for my people to do amazing things and celebrate family.”

Shukla, whose day job involves helping teenagers to produce a youth culture magazine, will become a father in the autumn. He calls his family “inescapable”, which is also true for Kitab – who’s privy to his dad’s online flirting (another modern problem Meatspace confronts: parents on the internet). Kitab is growing fond of Hayley, a fellow writer, when his life is capsized by his young Indian namesake, Kitab 2, who arrives in London, hacks Kitab’s social media accounts and sabotages his online profile. Amusing events unfold, involving brawling, indecent exposure and an orgy, which force Kitab to assess his life. Is Kitab 2 representative of how Kitab might have turned out if his ancestors hadn’t emigrated to Britain? “Kitab 2 is a cipher,” says Shukla. “He’s lost, trying to find his place, and so is Kitab. But Kitab 2 isn’t cynical, he’s crossed continents to come to London, whereas spending all his time online has made Kitab static.”

Shukla can be disarmingly open: “It took my mum’s death to make me realise how important my family is to me.” He’s frank about the shattering twist at the end of Meatspace: “It was my agent’s idea.” But some of his statements sound trite (“I’m all about community”) and rehearsed (“The live blogger is the modern griot  [storyteller]”). He avoids eye contact, which I’ll attribute to nerves rather than arrogance, but his message is clear: “I want people to finish Meatspace with the sense that what matters is who you are without your computer. Talking now, am I simply performing the part of ‘interview Nikesh’? When am I really myself?”

This question was around before social media and will be pondered long after our smartphones are obsolete. As I switch off mytape, post-interview Shukla asks: “Was that OK?”