Paradise Lost: The Narcissism and Loneliness of the Selfie Generation in Every Little Piece of Me
In his 1993 article, “Getting Away From Already Pretty Much Being Away From It All”, David Foster Wallace recounts a moment at the Illinois State Fair when he noticed that something was odd about the grass under one of the tents. It turned out not to be grass at all but a rather large mat of Astroturf. He lifted a corner and discovered the real grass underneath was trampled and dead.
Wallace was seemingly the only one to look down and take notice. If the artificial grass had covered the entire expanse of the fair, would anyone have noticed it?
Not if they thought that the plastic was real.
In the latest book by Amy Jones, Every Little Piece of Me, the characters live in a world covered with Astroturf, are told it is real grass and are punished should they dream of lifting a corner.
The book follows two protagonists: Mags Kovach, a young girl who has been raised by her older sister since their mother died and is subject to an assortment of dangers before going to live with her friend, Sam; and Ava Hart, who is uprooted from her New York City home to live in Gin Harbour, Nova Scotia, where she and her family will invite camera crews into their home for a reality television show, Home Is Where The Hart Is.
Ostensibly, the book is about two women navigating the dark and phoney worlds around them. I would argue it is about bigger things than that.
What the book does well is serve as a commentary for the generation of eighteen- to twenty-somethings today who have never known a world without social media and the Internet. Mags and Ava live their lives not merely on the internet but through it. If it is not online, it does not exist.
Ava uses the term “existential dread/angst” more than once over the course of the novel. Initially, it seemed as though she was being overly dramatic. As I read on, I soon realized that she nailed not only her problem but Mags’ as well. Both protagonists live in this dread to some degree. It is a combination of the desire to appease this dread and to find a place from which to find love and meaning in their lives that drives them to look to the internet and television for it. Their self-absorption is so total that they do not realize that it is precisely what is killing them.
What is interesting about the surname Hart and its various elbow jabs about love and home and family that occur time and again throughout the book is that any sort of real love is nearly absent from the lives of those in it. Not to mention that each of the Hart children—Eden, Valhalla, and Ava (short for Avalon)—are named after places of paradise from varying religions. Each character in the book is searching for a paradise that is lost and never recovered.
Family abandons. Protectors turn predator. One young soul who serves as a beacon for Mags dies in a scene delivered in such a quiet, private, and deeply beautiful way that it left this reader debating whether or not to leave the room.
Mags and Ava live in a state of frustration throughout the novel but never seem to be able to pinpoint its source. Both of them try their hardest to be loved while remaining selfish. What seems to escape them is the knowledge that real love is selfless.
The blurb for the book claims: “They will push back against the roles they’ve been forced to play, and take back control of something they thought they’d lost forever—the right to their own stories. And together, they will #BurnItAllDown”. Yet after a certain point in the story, they do not so much have their agency stolen from them as they have handed it over. Mags and Ava continue to victimize themselves long after the original damage has been done. By the second half of the book, each has developed a victim mentality that they wield like permission slips to do pretty much whatever they want.
Their final decision to “#BurnItAllDown” does not feel redemptive for anyone involved. It continues the cycle of destruction rather than a true attempt to turn the tide. A high ground taken by one or both of these characters would have gone a long way.
But a solution is offered: to turn one’s focus outward. A reprieve from the ache of loneliness does come for Mags and Ava when they reach out to each other.
This may be where the real heart of the story lies. The paradise of likes, comments and re-sharing is every bit as phoney as fake grass and digs an open grave of narcissism that we can fall into if gone unchecked. But when we look outside ourselves and extend a hand—and heart—to another human being, we will be able to pull back the Astroturf and find what is real.