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Daniel Torday’s New Novel Pits Young Against Old

Category: Art & Culture,Books

BOOMER1
By Daniel Torday
342 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $27.99

Millennial sociopathy is a pathology coined in a fictional New York Times column in “Boomer1,” Daniel Torday’s wry third work of fiction. Torday’s self-appointed millennial spokesman is Mark Brumfield, a 31-year-old ex-journalist with a Ph.D. We follow him from the heights of youthful ambition in pre-9/11 Brooklyn to the subterranean lows of his parents’ suburban Baltimore basement. Set in 2011, the novel reimagines the Occupy movement as an explicitly intergenerational conflict: millennials hitting back at the profligacy of baby boomers in a campaign of “domestic terrorism,” waged largely online and coalescing around one bitter, balding man whose mother still makes his sandwiches.

Wearied by rejection, unable to secure a tenure-track professorship, Mark’s confined to making his “mark” through nostalgic covers of bluegrass music and fact-checking other people’s articles. But all that changes with his rebirth as the anarchist activist Isaac Abramson, whose online avatar is Boomer1. In place of academic lectures, Mark records himself ranting at his laptop, composing “Boomer Missives” that are part white-male entitlement, part righteous rage. The rants go viral and Mark’s vocation turns out to be fracking the internet’s subsurface anger. Ultimately the movement eclipses him in terms of editorial control, but as its frontman he becomes “one of the most notorious revolutionaries in the U.S. since Weatherman.”

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Where the 9/11 attacks were set against the Manhattan skyline, Mark’s backdrop is an upside-down poster of Jerry Garcia. Hiding behind his computer, learning the lingo of chat rooms frequented by the anonymous hacking group Silence, Mark feels invincible, freed from the hole he’s fallen into IRL and finally endowed with purpose. But his trajectory is interwoven with those of his mother, Julia, and his former girlfriend Cassie. It’s through their eyes that we see his naïveté and delusion: He’s as blind to Cassie’s true identity (she’s gay) as he is to Julia’s pre-motherhood past, and it’s his misguided marriage proposal that necessitates a maternal reunion. Another miscalculation, involving a ring purchased with Disney stocks, means he now owes the I.R.S. Ironically, the erstwhile fact-checker sees an inattention to detail as the gulf between himself and his followers, who type faster but have zero grasp of grammar or nuance. Mark is both exhilarated and terrified by his doxxing disciples, who indiscriminately target an entire middle-aged demographic for the problems of late-stage capitalism.

It’s hard to tell where the book’s sympathies lie — it reads as contemporary satire with Shakespearean echoes — but the baby boomers’ own verdict is “meshugas.” Torday reveals the artificiality of all identity markers, from given names to generational monikers. Julia even doubts Mark’s credentials as a millennial given that he was born in 1980.

As Mark rants about unemployment, Cassie cashes in at a new media company; their parallel lives expose the ambivalence in a generation seen as both entitled and self-loathing. Though she shares Mark’s rage, Cassie also believes “demographics are dumb.” In her view, people don’t conform to stereotype. Like Mark and Julia, Cassie is a contradiction: both punk and pedant. Mark condescends to his Luddite mother, yet accepts the old-fashioned distinction between offline and digital selves. Julia, once a radical ’60s musician, is increasingly conservative, and deaf.

Her reliance on lip-reading (and thus resistance to complexity) enacts a silence Torday implicitly compares to the Silence hackers. The word “reflexive,” one of Torday’s tics, aptly describes the behavior of both movements, young and old. Many of the book’s best passages explore the collapsing of time — decaying leaves become “a synaptic palimpsest” — and from the old songs Mark and Cassie cover to the new names they take, the hybridization of past and present permeates the novel, complicating any division between “us” and “them.”

Olivia Sudjic is the author of “Sympathy.”


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