“Lain’s novel Bash Bash Revolution is not just a very funny work of science fiction (though it is). It is also very much a piece of engaged leftism; its irony and satire are never declaratory or moralistic…”
Bash Bash Revolution is the latest work of fiction by Douglas Lain, the publisher of the counter-cultural outlet Zero Books and frequent YouTube commentator. He was recently profiled in Merion West and in a recent article of mine, where I discussed how Lain and a number of other left-wing commentators demonstrate that a sea change is going on among progressives. I characterized Lain and others, such as Contrapoints Natalie Wynne and Current Affairs Nathan J. Robinson, as part of the “Engaged Left.” Engaged Leftists are those who still agitate powerfully for progressive causes but have shifted away from the tone and style associated with so called “social justice warriors.” Engaged Leftists are less ironic and declaratory, and more communicative and argumentative. They are also willing to concede some of the points made by their conservative opponents, dropping the moralizing rhetoric which has come to be associated with certain leftist figures.
Bash Bash Revolution
Lain’s novel Bash Bash Revolution is not just a very funny work of science fiction (though it is). It is also very much a piece of engaged leftism; its irony and satire are never declaratory or moralistic but are always focused first and foremost on demonstrating the finitude and often absurdity of human (and machine) relations. Communication with other conscious beings is a major theme and plot point throughout, though with a healthy smattering of sly political analysis frequently bubbling to the surface. It reminded me of the work of a younger David Foster Wallace, particularly the Broom of the System. Most of the youthful (and not so youthful) characters inhabit a blandly suburban world on the surface and spend a great deal of their time drinking, getting high, and having long conservations which range from the mundane to the extremely high-end. In the hands of a more bitter counter-cultural author such as Bret Easton Ellis, this might have been the subject of scathing denunciation and deconstruction. But Lain is always keen to showcase that his very human characters are often desperate to form meaningful connections in a neoliberal society often oriented toward discouraging that. It is a refreshing change of pace.
In a very Wallacesque fashion, there are also frequent meta-conversations about the nature of Bucky, consciousness, and society, with figures from Descartes to Marx popping into the text. These references are handled with an admirable lack of pretension, serving as helpful clues into the deeper nature of what is going on.
The style and plot of Bash Bash Revolution veers quite rapidly. The book is never anything less than playful, though there are serious matters aplenty to discuss. The protagonist is named Matthew Munson. He lives in a nondescript American town and spends a great deal of time getting ice cream and hanging out with his friends playing video games like Bash Bash and drinking. Matt also has a crush on a girl named Sally, who is relatively cautious about his clear interest in her. His father is developing a new form of Artificial Intelligence named Bucky, who is variously a supercharged Siri or a computer smart enough to potentially revolve all the major dilemmas of human life and society—perhaps most importantly how a smart but lazy young guy can find himself a secure and long-term relationship.
The setting shifts from fairly straight forward scenes in town to long interactions in digital space, and even sections chronicling Bucky’s growing self-awareness discussed in binary code. In a very Wallacesque fashion, there are also frequent meta-conversations about the nature of Bucky, consciousness, and society, with figures from Descartes to Marx popping into the text. These references are handled with an admirable lack of pretension, serving as helpful clues into the deeper nature of what is going on. The following section is indicatory:
“On the day he moved to Seattle, Dad didn’t say goodbye. I mean, officially, he wasn’t abandoning us but just taking a new job. He’d have to be away for a while is all, but he’d come back. That’s what Mom told me. She tried to reassure me. Dad, on the other hand, didn’t mention the fact he was leaving at all. He spent the morning pacing around the house reading passages from books by guys like Daniel Dennett, swearing at the ceiling, and then explaining it all to whoever was within earshot.”
That paragraph tells you a lot about Bash Bash Revolution. In one sense it is very much a book about youth anomie, crossed with some very relatable family drama, and a lot of winking nods to the broader theories. At a surface level, Bash Bash feels like an 80’s romantic comedy crossed with 21st century snark. It is often amusing, and Lain’s warmth and good humor are welcome in some of the more experimental sections. The occasionally Pynchonesque manic energy of the text are also paced with sections which slow down and allow us to know the characters and get inside their interactions, sometimes almost literally. This point is very important when explaining what is innovative and political about the book.
Some of the earlier descriptions might have led to the conclusion that Bash Bash Revolution is a piece of postmodern science fiction, like Phillip K. Dick crossed with the black humor of Kurt Vonnegut. Indeed, there are traces of Dick’s dystopian suburbs and Vonnegut’s American insanity in Bash Bash Revolution. But where the characters in a novel by Dick or Vonnegut are often insane personalities who are cogs in an equally obscene world, Matthew is a fundamentally decent person surrounded by an often sick society. His youth and his comparative naïveté mean he is able to see the madness with comparative impartiality, though his recreational use of drugs and alcohol suggest that he isn’t above trying to float past the problems it poses. Bash Bash Revolution is a book about how we communicate and interact with one another in a society gifted with ever greater convenience and technologies—but where the potential for alienation and marginalization by systemic forces remains a constant problem.
What makes Matthew and his fellow protagonists unique is that, unlike many postmodern characters who are unaware of their situatedness in absurdity, he accepts and even embraces it when playing video games with his friends. One of the questions throughout the book is whether this reflective understanding of his situation in an often insane society is enough to provide him with the insight to break out of it—or at least forge his own destiny. Lain is smart enough to know that this is also not a private and romanticized project but one that is always carried out with others. This makes Bash Bash Revolution a different and often moving piece of fiction about how we can communicate our sense of alienation to one another. It is also about whether this can lead to more than just narcissistic vanity projects like his father’s, or a retreat into soma-like distractions. In many ways, Bucky is the most human character, with his God’s eye view into the absurdity of everything filling him with a kind of knowing mirth.
The book ends on an ambiguous note suggesting the characters and the author haven’t yet entirely figured out the solution to some of the problems posed. This can be occasionally frustrating if one is looking for an expedient resolution to these problems. But what makes Lain’s work fall into the engaged-Left is precisely its willingness to keep the conclusions open for interpretation and possibly further transformation. Tying everything up cleanly would have been a declaration of authority by an author whose book tries very hard to avoid that, and perhaps this is as it should be. After all, what good is freedom if we can’t change our futures together? .
By way of disclosure, the author of this review wishes to stipulate that he is releasing a volume of essays published by Zero Books in the near future.
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf