The Cloud by Matt Richtel is a techno-thriller laced with paranoia (available January 29, 2013).
While waiting for a subway train to take him home, Nat Idle is thinking about his son Isaac and how an eight-month-old views the world. Within seconds he’s on the floor, barely escaping death by subway train, and trying to ascertain why a clumsy homeless man tried to kill him.
As with most good books, this is just the tiny corner of a huge mystery that unfolds slowly—and painfully—for the freelance journalist.
After sustaining a concussion in the accident, Nat is on a treacherous trail to find out why his name along with the name of a woman he doesn’t know were on a piece of paper the homeless man dropped at the scene. Confusion from the concussion, grieving thoughts of the girlfriend and baby who no longer live with him, and a growing paranoia about Big Brother monitoring his electronic devices make it difficult for Nat to trust anyone, including himself.
By now I’m sure everyone has heard of “the Cloud,” the mystical place we can store electronic information to ease the burden of information on our computers, phones, and other fun electronic items. When Nat gets seeds of information about the Cloud, what he learns makes him think it’s more insidious and perilous than the public has been led to believe, and it could be a danger to the most vulnerable.
Matt Richtel has done a masterful job of keeping Nat as narrator in the haze of his concussion. A friend of mine recently experienced this after a bad fall, and she went through everything Nat did during her recovery. In addition to awful headaches and problems with short-term memory, Nat can’t escape the fog of his injury and it adds a wonderful edge to the suspense in the book.
Nat even makes it easier for us to understand his symptoms because he was a medical student before deciding to become a journalist, and, in addition to explaining what he’s suffering, he remembers people by their physical limitations like the people he’s near at an awards banquet:
They also, apropos of nothing, have the usual range of medical conditions. A woman in the front row in a smart blue suit can’t suppress a deep cough consistent with the tail end of walking pneumonia, less throaty than bronchitis; two tables away, a retiree curled unnaturally over his lunch like a question mark looks to have camptocormia, a bent spine we now know to have degenerative origins, not psychological ones, as once thought. Across from him sits a rail-thin man with angular features and a bald head so shiny that I wonder about seborrhea, excessive secretion of the sebaceous glands. Oily skin.
After diagnosing the medical problems, he refers to people by their conditions thereafter. I found it fairly easy to keep up with which character was doing what with this method.
Nat stumbles through the story with each dangerous encounter he has bringing him closer and closer to the truth. However, the truth is so complicated he doesn’t realize he’s getting closer except by the level of the hazardous encounters he has with the bad guys. While he’s struggling to make headway, he’s grieving over the absence of his girlfriend and baby son. When the confusion collides due to his concussion, he has visions like this one:
“I’m seeing phosphenes,” I say.
I sit on a ledge next to infant Isaac. He looks different than I remember him, more teeth and hair. We’re thousands of feet in the air, cloud level. He wears white overalls with alligators on them. I picked them out at a Babys (sic) R Us in South San Francisco with sticky floors a few months before he was born. Between us on the ledge, a white plate holds two fortune cookies. One is cracked open and is empty.
“I realize you have no idea what I’m talking about.”
“Of course I know about phosphenes,” my tiny son responds. “I’m little but I’m not stupid.”
“You can talk?”
He puts his adorable index finger on his nose and wiggles it absently, an infant discovering his personal space. Phosphenes are the product of electrical static inside our brains. When neurons fire—which happens pretty much all the time—they are accompanied by electrical signals. The signals throw off static, just like any electrical signal, a veritable neurological white noise. If you’ve ever closed your eyes tightly, you can see a matrix of light; that’s the static. You can see it too with your eyes open, often against a black backdrop.
At this moment, I’m seeing phosphenes in spades, my brain murky and white with static, like I’ve blown a circuit.
“Isaac, am I going to die?”
“I dunno. I’m just a baby. But I do know she’s been lying to you.”
This scene not only moves the story forward, it also gives us a real look at the confusing world Nat is habituating at that moment. Richtel is very skillful at weaving subconscious truths into Nat’s random thoughts and imaginary experiences.
In spite of his limitations, Nat doesn’t give up on his quest—he is very determined to find the truth and expose the people who are making it happen. In the midst of all this, he meets Faith, the woman who helped him when he was injured in the subway, but he finds she is also of questionable character and may not be the helper she claims she is.
It all adds up to a fascinating book that will make you think twice when you turn on your computer. Of course if you’re like me and can’t live without your favorite electronic devices, you give it only the briefest of thoughts before you do exactly what you want. Just try to keep your head above the Cloud.
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Leigh Neely is a former newspaper and magazine editor. She currently does freelance work, recently had a short story published in the anthology, Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices, and is a contributor to the blog WomenofMystery.net. She and her collaborator, Jan Powell, have a book, Second Nature by Neely Powell, coming out next spring.