‘The year is 1998: Titanic just won 6 Oscars, boy bands are dominating MTV’s airwaves, and like any other teenager Jess Flynn is just trying to survive high school. Between a crush on her childhood best friend, overprotective parents, and her sister’s worsening health, the only constant is her hometown of Swickley, which feels smaller by the day. Jess is resigned to her small-town life, until the day she discovers a mysterious device with an apple logo, causing her to question everything and everyone she’s ever known. As more cracks appear in Jess’s world, she faces a choice: can she live the rest of her life knowing it’s a lie or should she risk everything for the truth?’
This is Not the Jess Show is a brilliant book that looks at our relationship with the media and what it stands to become – or is becoming and already is, for some people – if we allow our world to revolve around accumulating likes, followers and attention on social media. I couldn’t put it down and read through it cover to cover in one go! In the world of 2037, things have got so out of hand that the lines between reality and fiction have blurred to the extent of morally questionable choices being made in the pursuit of media attention, money and public interest (I’m not suggesting this isn’t happening already, only that the novel’s world takes it another step further). For all she knows, Jess is living in the 1990s and has no idea about the world beyond that which has been crafted around her. She has never experienced true freedom, nor spent a day with absolute privacy. And yet she is unaware of this – and unaware that she is the only one who doesn’t know.
The book is reminiscent of The Truman show, for Jess is unaware that her life is being broadcast to the rest of the world and that nearly everyone she knows is an actor. Not only this, but her day to day existence is run largely like a script, with storylines scheduled and those around her told what to say and how to behave. What I found particularly disturbing about her situation is that her parents have chosen this for her and are complicit in the deception for their own gains, less interested in her than they are in maintaining their followings, brands and earnings. To them, she is a means to an end; an object they happily manipulate to maximise drama and keep their lives in the spotlight, to the extent of lying to her about her true family and orchestrating emotional responses based on what the public want to see and which of the cast is or isn’t particularly popular. They demonstrate no true interest in her as their daughter or even as a human being, their morals completely non-existent and behaviour deplorable. Everything is okay in their world as long as the attention is on them and they are making gains from the show, and even as she begins to show signs of emotional distress and quite plainly needs their support, they refuse to help her or address her worries, instead lying and trying to divert her attention from anything that might disrupt their money-making venture.
Among those who behave most deplorably is the boy that Jess is interested in, who remains so utterly focused on his role in the show that he tries to convince her that she ought to remain where she is based on his intentions to get better storylines and become a bigger star. Not only he is intent on emotionally manipulating her for his own means, but he too outright lies about her to others, even taking items that she’s used to sell on and make more money. He is but one of the show’s cast that demonstrates a remarkable lack of empathy and emotional awareness, too obsessed with ratings and maintaining the audience’s interest to really care about what Jess feels or what happens to her. This lack of awareness is one feature that many of the characters demonstrate, their moral compass and ability to consider the feelings of others destroyed by their obsessive self-interest and focus on making themselves look as good as possible in-front of the wider media. The world of 2037 is worryingly recognisable as our own and discomfortingly similar, especially given just how much control social media and tech giants increasingly have over our lives, ‘news’ and the disseminating of information, let alone the information that they collect and share about us.
This is Not the Jess Show is a hugely enjoyable and addictive read, released yesterday, February 2nd! Thank you to Quirk Books for sending me a copy for review!