These Days by Jack Cheng
I am seldom a reader of fiction that is not rooted in fantasy or science, so books set in our modern world are foreign to me. So I was pleasantly surprised to find how engaging These Days was. Author Jack Cheng has a fluid narrative that is colorful and evocative of New York City and the characters' physical sensations. Reading a book where the events are realistic — two twenty-somethings meet, one who's planning his future, the other who's escaping her past — was actually a refreshing change and gave me ideas for my own life.
The characters were also very relatable, at least on a personal level. I saw much of myself in the protagonist, Connor: makes his living online, connected to the social web, and perhaps a bit naive and needy in relationships. But I also related to his love interest, K, who never carries a cell phone and enjoys her time offline. It was in fact that technological divide between the love interests that led me to originally back Cheng's Kickstarter to self-publish this book.
But this is not "a story about technology", as the crowdfunding video suggested. Connor uses technology to distract himself from the present but capture and relive the past, through photos, videos, tweets, and status updates. K, by contrast, is all about living in the moment but wants desperately to forget her own history. The scene describing her motivation for doing so was so evocative, I cried — I can't remember the last book to have that effect on me. These are the true challenges the characters are facing.
The book takes us through several anecdotes that demonstrate these opposing philosophies, but the narrative never really builds. Connor hates his job, quits, and gets a new one. He doesn't like his new job, thinks about quitting, but decides to stick around. He and K go out to dinner and have a conversation. They ride on the subway and make observations about the other commuters. With the exception of some flashbacks that are occasionally hard to place in the tale's chronology, it's vignette after vignette, without any real momentum.
That's why the novel's ending came as such a shock. And again, it's one I relate to personally, as something nearly identical happened to me, which may color my reception of the book. I look to fiction to vicariously experience situations I've not yet encountered and to get into other people's heads and learn how they feel, that I might better empathize. But These Days offered neither alternative to, nor insight into, reality. I had hoped that the message would be either "Things don't have to be this way" as I find in the unreal fiction I normally gravitate to, or at the very least, "Things are this way, but here's why". I received neither source of closure from this book. It was an abrupt and heartless ending that left me unsure why anything had just happened, what the characters' motivations had been, or what either of them was supposed to learn from this experience or how they were expected to grow from it.
I normally dive right from book to book, but I was preoccupied with These Days for days afterward. Perhaps that's a sign of a good book, that it stays with you and makes you think. But, like Connor, I don't know what just happened, and I don't know that I ever will.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars