Reality and Other Stories by John Lanchester - review: banal meets surreal in this ghostly collection

Reality and Other Stories by John Lanchester - review: banal meets surreal in this ghostly collection

There should be a word for that feeling you have when technology turns against you. When you urgently need to send a text but have no signal, or our current state: facing a winter of working from home, reliant on wi-fi connection and unsatisfactory Zoom meetings.

For the past three years, John Lanchester has been observing technology’s effect on human nature; how it has the capacity to bring out the worst in us and how we don’t know much about its impact as it is all still relatively new. The result is this collection of eight spooky stories, out in time for Halloween.

Charlie Brooker’s TV series Black Mirror shows how much mischief can be made with technological dystopia and Lanchester runs with this, giving us selfie sticks that have been possessed by the devil, ghosts who guard wi-fi passwords and cold calls from beyond the grave.

He is a versatile writer with a gift for making sense of the modern world, in Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010), which demystified the banking crisis, and Capital (2012), a witty social commentary. His latest novel The Wall, published last year, felt dry, trying too hard to make a political statement about populism at the expense of engaging characters. But this is a return to form, with echoes of his darkly funny first novel, The Debt to Pleasure (1996), about a food obsessive with a sinister side. The best story here is Signal, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 2017. It’s a masterfully crafted traditional ghost story told from the view of an exhausted father of two screen-addicted children who takes his family to spend New Year’s Eve at his rich university friend Michael’s remote estate in north Yorkshire. There, they encounter a tall stranger who shows them how to connect to the internet. Lanchester mixes relatable, everyday observations with surreal twists, building to a chilling conclusion.

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The other stories feel more like uncanny morality tales than horror. In Cold Call, Lanchester expresses the frustration of a woman who has taken on the burden of caring for her rude father-in-law with no support from her husband. Her resentment is an all too human feeling, regardless of technology, but she focusses on how her mobile phone puts her at the mercy of her father-in-law’s whims. There’s a story about reality TV, called Reality, where Lanchester skewers selfie culture, and another called Coffin Liquor that relies on a clunky play on words about the audiobook platform Audible becoming inaudible and where Lanchester ad-libs on the scarier passages of Great Expectations. We Happy Few is the weakest story. It’s a pretentious conversation between academics about Twitter trolling with references to Socrates that doesn’t feel believable.

But the overall impression is that Lanchester had fun with this collection, liberated from the constraints of writing a whole novel and free to do what he does best: to get inside people’s heads and explore what makes us tick.

Reality and Other Stories by John Lanchester (Faber, £12.99), buy it here.

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