In 2009, Mark Fisher identified the call center as the place where “you are as close as you can be to confronting the artificial stupidity of Capital in itself”. This distinction might be extended, fifteen years later, to the tech startup and its office, full of corporate buzzwords and discreet NDAs. The tactics that individuals come to to deal with their participation in capitalist society was a major concern of Fisher’s, and it’s the target of Users, Colin Winnette’s latest book about a VR company and the creative lead who propels the new technology to success before realizing the consequences of what he’s created. It’s a story about individual solutions to larger problems, set in a workplace where incentives like wellness benefits and unlimited fresh cream soften the blow of doing occasionally evil things.
The novel follows Miles, the creator of the popular VR experience The Ghost Lover, which turns a user’s memories into a playground of everyday life where they’re haunted by an ex. After receiving negative feedback about the company’s content moderation, he begins getting death threats in the mail and begins a years-long attempt to run away from these twin problems that crashes in spectacular fashion against his desire for a normal life.
Miles exists in a state of physical and emotional constipation. He runs ideas past himself, again and again, circling back on his decisions over and over. Early in the book, he calls an abuse headline to talk through the death threats and he’s told to ignore them. Instead, he spends the rest of the book thinking back to them, first in fear and then in pride, unable to either act or shut them out of his mind. He’s a portrait of the dangers of this kind of stuckness; as one character tells him up front, “if you do nothing but punt their problems for the rest of your life, you’re going to see things slowly get worse, then rapidly get worse, until the damage is irreparable”.
This warning proves to be correct as Miles gradually descends into a maze he’s made himself (inside the literal maze that his wife has made of their house). As in Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, Users is interested in what people will do when their privacy is eroded and chooses to explore that question through a plot that walks the line between magical realism and thriller. “Fungible reality”, a term Miles uses when discussing VR, becomes appropriate to the real world too, as normal events take on potentially sinister undertones.
It’s clear that Users is trying to position itself among a group of work-critical books and shows that have come out in the past year. The book jacket compares it to Severance, last spring’s hit Apple TV+ series about workers who break their work selves off from the rest of their lives. One party scene celebrating Miles and Lily’s incorporation of multiplayer into VR feels like a parallel to the Apple drama’s famous waffle party, which ends up as a furious airing of grievances. The party in Severance is a little shitty, to demonstrate how little it takes to make the workers’ impoverished “innies” happy; relatively speaking, the party in Users is luxurious, with (misspelled) balloon signs and flutes of champagne that no one bothers to interrupt their workday for. Unlike Severance’s main character Mark, Miles has achieved luxury at work and at home; he even understands that he’s being compensated so well so that he can take the fall for the company someday, though he only thinks of that possibility in the abstract.
Users is less about the horror of work than Severance is though, and more about the dangers of transmitting a fallible man’s ideas into (virtual) reality without stopping to think through how they will function there. It sometimes blazes through events—there’s even a several-year time jump in the middle—but it also lingers on individual scenes, drawing them out to emphasize the layers of insecurity and manipulation that drive Miles to act. It presents five or six conversations as though they’re boss battles in a video game, pages and pages long and mostly taken up by an internal monologue. This reinforces something Miles says to himself a few times: that we only ever see pieces of people that “gesture at the larger, inaccessible whole”. But as he says a few lines later, large, inaccessible wholes are often transparent and predictable. The conversational battles underline the difference between Miles and the people in his life while also showing how he approaches conversations as a matter of saying the right things in the right order, a sequence it’s possible to objectively fail.
These back and forths characterize Miles more than his solo thoughts, and they also make me more prepared to consider the novel’s climax—a disturbing experience which Miles is determined to cast as far out of his range of responsibility as possible—meta-narratively as a critique, rather than an opportunity for empathy with Miles himself. I think this is a good thing, because as a reader that climax eroded whatever sympathy I had left over for Miles. To be blunt, scenes like this one, played straight, don’t work if you’re someone more likely to identify with the other person than the main character. Users contains scenes more meta-critical than those I’d find in Jack Kerouac, for instance, but still brushes up against that same essential problem.
This is one reason I see Users as a fable: because just desserts get served, and in the end, the novel has more sympathy for Miles’s trapped wife and his scary daughter than it does for Miles himself. I can’t be sure of this, though, because the entirety of the perspective comes from Miles’s own head and the vacillating, self-absorbed way he approaches issues, always distancing himself from responsibility. I think his protesting too much is the novel’s way of judging him, taking the responsibility for him. I think that, but I can’t prove it.
All of this goes down a bit easier because the novel is just so quick. I devoured it like Miles devours the organic cream at his work. I can’t help but remember the book in scenes: ant scene, bar scene, VR scene, a taxonomy which is encouraged by the short chapters Users is broken into. I think this is also because these scenes are focused on vivid inciting events, which they lean on in order to spur Miles into another loop of thought. The ant scene, for example, refers to an accident on the first day Miles’s family is at a cabin in Texas, when his youngest daughter is buried by his oldest in a hole next to a red ants’ nest. Miles responds too late, fumbling with the latch as his daughter is “wriggling and rolling, collecting more [ants] from the line with each miscalculated movement”.
This is also why the imagistic failures stand out so clearly. The bar scene, for example, happens when Miles attends a work mixer he thinks the sender of the death threats invited him to. I was confused about where characters stood and what they were doing for about half a page, long enough to be a problem, but not long enough to be an effective stylistic choice. Sometimes these descriptions feel a little like the Original Experiences Miles develops: just enough detail for you to fill in the rest yourself, but sometimes too empty even for that.
I went into Users expecting to find a critique of VR as a technology. While there’s some of that, especially with regard to its privacy implications, Winnette is more interested in offering a critique of the tech culture of building a bridge under your feet, thinking ahead only as far as the next problem. The technology isn’t the sole issue, but the implementation. The slogan for VR, “Dream it and it’s yours”, ends up being just as much a curse as a blessing. The problem isn’t with the dream, but with the dreamer.
Emily Price is a former intern at Paste Magazine and a columnist at Unwinnable Magazine She is also a Ph.D. Candidate in literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She can be found on Twitter @the_emilyap.