This compulsively readable novel is deliberately seductive: a handsome sociopath taken with a bright young college graduate taking writing courses and living in a shoebox-sized apartment provided by the college. A native of New York’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, Joe Goldberg manages a bookstore that sells old and new books. The aging owner, Mr. Moody, has consigned management to Joe due to ill health, including the care of rare selections housed in “the cage”—a specially-built room to preserve the signed first editions of the store’s most valuable inventory.
The easy, literate banter with customer Genevieve Beck gives birth to Joe’s obsession with the girl who goes by “Beck” and immerses herself in social media and hash-tag expositions. No slacker in this regard, Joe begins his voyeuristic siege of Beck by using technology to find her address, gradually discovering ways to infiltrate her world, gaining access to cells phone texts, emails, tweets and Facebook postings. Though she remains blissfully unaware of Joe, he inserts himself into her daily existence via current technology, tracking her conversations with friends, obsession with unworthy lover Benji, and her habit of describing every facet of her life online in one format or another.
That’s the thing about seduction: even though Joe is clearly sociopathic, justifying every intrusion with his interest in Beck’s welfare and “protecting their budding relationship,” Beck is not the most promising recipient of anyone’s undying affection. Pretentious, self-obsessed, sloppy in her personal habits and generally unaware of anyone besides herself, Beck is hardly a candidate for a committed relationship. From the start, she never hides the fact that she courts male attention and uses her sexuality as a magnet for the opposite sex. After a while, Joe’s generosity in tolerating and forgiving Beck’s various failures becomes tedious… until I remember that it is Joe’s mind that is creating the scenario, that everything evolves from Joe’s perception of Beck’s behavior and devolves from her gradual exposure as less than the character he has so meticulously idolized. Kepnes almost had me in her clever snare, blaming the victim and identifying with the perpetrator.
More aware, I tolerate Joe, half-willing to forgive his behavior thanks to his excess of wit and charm and innate intelligence (he is an autodidact). I never warm to Beck, who makes no attempt to mask her selfishness beyond the cutesy hash-tag messages she constantly posts. Joe is without a doubt a predator, a threat to the other unlikable characters who people the novel, a monster at large among a herd of tweeting victims. You too often smacks of American Psycho, without the overweening misogyny, eerily familiar and infected with the narcissistic traits of a generation trapped by the banality of self-referencing technology, falling willingly into the world of self-delusion. In the words of T.S. Eliot in “The Hollow Men,”
“This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”