James Meek’s entertaining new read, The Heart Broke In, can remind one of his recently deceased compatriot, Christopher Hitchens, who once said: “Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.” For it is human decency—or if one were to train the scope out a bit, morality—that is the basis of this story.
Questions of morality, religion, and science are all writ large over this novel that is populated with characters who are all trying to live good lives, some with more success than others. Forty-four-year-old Ritchie Shepherd used to be the lead singer for a band called the Lazygods and now enjoys success with a reality show that focuses on teen talent. As the novel opens, Ritchie is trying to end an illicit relationship with a 15-year-old girl he met through the show while his wife, Karin Olsson (also part of the Lazygods), tends to their young children, Dan and Ruby.
If Ritchie is too sleazy for comfort, his sister, Rebecca Shepherd, is anything but. A renowned scientist on the verge of big discoveries in the field of malaria, Bec is an upright citizen haunted by all the world’s problems that she is still not able to solve. At the outset of the novel, she ends her very brief engagement to Val Oatman, the famous editor of a local newspaper. Bec instead hooks up with Alex Comrie, a brilliant scientist who is as much trying to move out of his equally brilliant uncle’s shadow as he embarks on a career of his own.
Turns out Val Oatman is not one to take rejection lightly. After leaving the newspaper job for reasons not entirely due to his split with Bec, he sets up a website called the Moral Foundation. The Moral Foundation’s basic purpose is sleaze—knowing that everyone has vulnerabilities, it threatens to publish salacious secrets about the rich and famous unless that particular person can rat out somebody else. It is this complicated web of deception that keeps the website afloat and the characters of Meek’s book constantly watching their backs.
The Heart Broke In addresses larger issues of morality, honor, and love within its pages. For the most part it succeeds—for a 400+ page book, it moves pretty quickly. It could be argued that the book is a pretty accurate (and depressing) reflection of modern life. We get a glimpse into an iPhone app called ManRater, which syncs with your contacts and rates the men by points: “plus two for being funny, plus one for every $20,000 a man earned over the minimum wage, plus two for wanting children, minus one for every previous marriage after the first, plus two for being tall,” and so on. Meek visits virtues that have been the cornerstone of decent society for centuries—honesty, decency, and more—and finds that not much has gotten better in contemporary society despite our many material advances.
In the old times, Bec observes, if a family’s honor was on the line,
“they challenged people to duels they knew they’d win. If a woman offended them they’d kill the woman’s lover or her husband and shame the woman’s brother, but they wouldn’t touch her, just leave her crying there with corpses of men around her.”
Not much, she notices, has changed. These days, we have technology and the Moral Foundation. It’s a depressing thought that deceit and lies have been our lot for ever. At the same time, it’s a net positive that virtues such as decency and mercy and kindness still come out on top.