Humor comes together in a sometimes-dark, often playful, and ultimately humanist satire of technology, media, and politics past and present in this fascinating debut novel by Schneider, a journalist and political commentator.
The story opens as the author clears out his grandfather’s attic. But the unenviable chore yields something unexpected: his great-grandfather’s writing and a strange, typewriterlike device that seems to have been part of a miraculous turn-of-the-century internet. The writings make up the rest of the novel as the great-grandfather, Sebastian Schneider, navigates his menial career as a typist for the Milwaukee Post in 1916. When Sebastian receives the device—called a Finger-Phone—from a colleague, he begins blogging his thoughts and feelings on the matters of the day, from women’s suffrage to the specter of Prohibition. Throughout, the text delivers plenty of laughs, portraying historical events without the perspective of hindsight and understanding and viewing Sebastian’s 20th-century ideas through 21st-century technology. His misadventures range from trying to buy firewood through Tinder to click-bait articles and spam messages promising male enhancement. These jokes start to feel redundant after a while, but the novel’s effective, deadpan prose is still chuckleworthy, and Sebastian’s haplessness allows for plenty of situation comedy as well, like when he ends up drunk at a teetotaler rally. He uses his blog as an outlet to voice his opinions and share his misadventures, but as time goes on, he feels increasingly alone and disconnected. This idea isn’t particularly novel, but the story ultimately goes deeper and addresses why technology seems to yield these negative feelings. Indeed, while the reader laughs at Sebastian’s slip-ups and misunderstandings, the novel also indicts his sexism, self-certainty, and tendency to speak from ignorance. And at the same time, while the story mocks plenty of the more absurd aspects of the digital age, it also shows how Sebastian gains a genuine friendship through his online interactions—a relationship his own prejudices might have kept him from in the real world. In this way, the reader comes away with the sense that this is not a baldfaced indictment of technology but a nuanced treatment on the ways in which we abuse it.
A smart, layered satire for historians and cultural critics alike.