By David Hensley
“Hitherto the human face had mixed often in my dreams, but not despotically, nor with any special power of tormenting. But now that which I have called the tyranny of the human face began to unfold itself.” –De Quincey
Social media platforms build communities, open worlds, and keep us united with the friends we’d have otherwise left in the darkening halls of faded high school memory, but these platforms are not without their drawbacks. Anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation are on the rise, as rates of suicide follow along—all in a world seemingly more connected than ever. And while social psychologists are still teasing out the significance of what Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have done to the human experience, Ryan Napier—in his debut, Four Stories About the Human Face—offers his own insights into our lives á la iPhone. It seems fitting then that Napier should open his book with an excerpt from De Quincey’s Confessions of An English Opium Eater—the perfect prelude to a stroll through our infinite laudanum den of likes and follows and views.
The novella is a four-pronged satire in seventy-three pages. In each of its sections, Napier delves into a different aspect of humanity’s complicated and befuddled relationship with modern technology. His result is often as amusing as it is unsettling.
In the first story, “Pink Dolphin,” we follow a man whose search for happiness is constantly confounded by none other than his friends’ Instagram pics. Filtered, angled, curated pictures of people looking perfect—they make his seem a thin broth by comparison. “Their pictures were the tips of icebergs,” he muses, “little pieces of something big and deep. I wanted to be big and deep too.” It is here where we find the first examples of the author’s lean, economical prose. Scalpel-like, his words have a way of cutting unadornedly to the heart of our many digital neuroses: our frantic fear of missing out and our dread at not living as well as the people on our screens, those nonexistent ideals in a nebulous digital space.
But the book is funny too. In this same story, the narrator sights a pink dolphin on a Nat Geo Instagram page, then he travels all the way to China in search of it. With a touch of Ahab-madness, he hopes to capture the rare, titular creature not by harpoon, but with the perfect selfie. And with that perfect selfie, just maybe he’ll finally find the peace he’s been looking for.
In another story Napier deconstructs the apparent innocuousness of a Twitter-based ad campaign. With one errant tweet, a pasta sauce company’s marketing specialist reboots the Arab Spring in an Ex-Bloc nation. Balancing humor and suspense, the author provides a now all-too-intimate reminder of the propaganda power always in reach of marketer and demagogue alike.
Napier revitalizes a number of age-old philosophical dilemmas: what is a meaningful life, and how much stock should one put in the opinions (likes) of others? The essence of the novel’s insightfulness is how the author takes these dilemmas and recontextualizes them in a modern light.
Consider the relationship between appearance and reality, something over which thinkers have pondered for centuries. Now reflect on the deficit between your Facebook life and your non-digital life. This deficit is the subject of “The Tower,” a story about a honeymooning couple who can’t enjoy a moment of their vacation without comparing it with how it later seems on Facebook. “We had already had the happiest day of our lives, and we hadn’t even felt it.” Here the story’s narrator ponders the implications of his and his wife’s over-identification with their Facebook doppelgangers. A long-known fact of Stoics and shrinks alike is that the surest way to misery is to externalize one’s source of happiness. This story focuses on the consequences of just that: “This would be the rest of our lives—looking at these pictures, pinching our phones, clicking through slideshows, forgetting unforgettable places.” But just as this couple approaches the apogee of their dissatisfaction with the unending carnival of blue thumbs up, Napier gives them hope in the form of bold sacrifice. A gesture perhaps too radical for many of us today.
“The Holy Family” is the fourth and final of installment of this collection. Of all the investigations Napier makes into the tyranny of the human face and image, this is by far the most tongue-in-cheek. A husband and wife take their new baby to an obscure European town, certainly not to one-up their friends’ clichéd Paris vacation, but to give their child a taste of real culture, at a more “creative” destination. He is a baby born to smile for the camera phone (perhaps because he was born with a partial set of teeth), a baby destined for social media celebrity—and fated to punch his tiny fist through a centuries-old portrait of Jesus, Joseph and Mary. Creative destruction. The story goes viral. And a new image of the holy family emerges, immortalized on the canvases of Buzzfeed and Twitter.
Addressing readers nearly two-hundred years ago, De Quincey promised his Confessions would be “not merely an interesting record, but in a considerable degree useful and instructive.” The same might be said of Four Stories About the Human Face. Napier’s book is useful and instructive and profound in a way that such light reading rarely is. You could read in two hours. You could even read it on your iPhone. But you should read it.
by Ryan Napier
Bull City Press $12.00
David Hensley holds his degree in English and Creative Writing from the University of Saint Francis and currently resides in Chicago. In addition to reviews and essays, he often writes curatively, exploring topics of personal loss and misfortune. Read his lacerating “Going to Find,” featured in Memoir Magazine. Peruse his budding blog at noeticdetritus.com.