Unemployed, unsure, in debt, fearful, even overwhelmed – whether they are described as Generation Y or millennials, the life of Westerners who came of age in the 21st century is not a happy one, it seems.
Charlie Brooker’s hit TV anthology series Black Mirror successfully, and satirically, chronicled this worrying state of affairs, in which technology and social media corrupted rather than complemented. English poet Luke Kennard’s debut novel is certainly a companion piece – the writing is not quite so razor sharp but the idea that this generation is unable to find happiness is profoundly explored.
Set in the near future (the proliferation of driverless cars being one hint of this), the title of the book refers to an Orwellian “programme” undertaken by people who cannot quite cope with the pressures of the modern world. Karl wants to impress his wife and live the lifestyle he believes they deserve, but does so by maxing out his credit cards and then committing online fraud to pay them off.
Deemed not a rogue, just desperate and misguided, Karl is enrolled in The Transition rather than being sent to prison. Initially, the programme seems too good to be true. He is taken, with his wife, to a nice suburban house where, freed of any financial responsibilities, they will be coached in life skills by their mentors until they are ready to be reintegrated into society.
It is an intriguing, and immediately creepy, set up. There is, for example, a strange, locked basement. They must log diary entries each day on their tablets for appraisal. The Transition, it transpires, is a multinational company with rather sinister aims, possibly linked to Karl’s increasingly distant wife. There is a real echo of Kafka’s chilling Metamorphosis, as the veneer of Karl’s ostensibly caring personality begins to be stripped away and he realises how much of a burden he is.
As a parable about a not particularly appealing society in thrall to global corporations and commercialisation, however, The Transition begins to creak in its third act. The attempts at a thriller-style ending, as Karl plots to bring down The Transition, do not add up to much. Indeed, escaping into the outside world just emphasises the fact that the novel’s mechanisms are actually quite thinly drawn.
Still, perhaps that is Kennard’s point. It is not really a book about a futuristic dystopia in which a corporation is manipulating the lives of the many for the benefit of the few, after all. It is really about the way millennials live and feel now – and as far as that goes, he has written a witty, sardonic and honest debut that should give us all cause for concern.