The very cover of Gripped, by Jason Donnelly advertises a quote from the author’s mother saying, “After the shock of the first paragraph, I actually liked the book.” And all the pre-publication hype included at least one line about the outrageous opening. Needless to say, as soon as I received the book, I rushed to read that first paragraph. I was expecting something really vulgar, something that would make me question if I should read any further, and, while the intro is rather risqué, it wasn’t as shocking as I expected it to be. Maybe it was because that line was so hyped up, maybe it was because I grew up watching CKY videos, or maybe it is because we are so desensitized these days, I needed much more than ejaculation on a cat to make me blush.
That said, what I took from the first paragraph was not only how quickly it grabs the audience, but how succinctly it introduces us to our narrator. It establishes character and voice - telling the world about coming on your cat is a bit depraved, but from this paragraph we see that this character is also witty and snarky. After this intro I was afraid that the novel was going to rely on shock value, but it pleasantly kept the wry voice and tone of the character, while also offering a compelling plot. It slowly lured me into this world and before I realized it I was half way through the novel.
From the beginning of Gripped we are sucked into the narrator’s world. Marky, the narrator who we had met in the first paragraph is a slacker. He has become complacent, he hates his job, his car is a mess, he has a substance masturbation habit, and he keeps thinking that maybe he can lose some weight.
But Marky has figured out how to play the system, he knows just how little work he has to do in his cubical to only get reprimanded slightly and still receive his weekly paycheck. There is plenty of grumbling, interoffice power struggles, cattiness, and snarky comments on office life to paint a drab picture so we the reader feels terrible for anyone stuck in such a place.
Not to fret, though. Early in of the novel, Marky gets fired for a stunt that he may not be responsible for or just may not remember doing. Being fired isn’t unexpected for Marky, it’s not unwelcome, but it is rather inconvenient to not have a paycheck.
As he gets home his TV is waiting for him; yep, there is an infomercial waiting just for him. It is not an infomercial for some exercise machine or diet pills that we all see; this infomercial was just for Marky. It addressed him by name and it knew just what he needed to change in his life. It was for, The Program.
Donnelly immediately sucks the reader in and suspends our disbelief. Though a man in a suit, in the middle of the night, delivers The Program to Marky in a plain box, we are totally on board. I mean, it is a little sketchy, but it promises to change his life, so what is the harm?
The Program starts out unassumingly enough, a newspaper subscription and the instructions to start talking with people about current events. I mean, who wouldn’t benefit from that? Slowly, though, The Program gets more suspicious and more menacing. The first rule is that Marky, who they immediately rechristened as Mark, was not allowed to tell anyone that he is in The Program. It is an odd detail, but we go with it. We want our narrator to succeed after such a drab office existence. We cheer for him as he gets a girlfriend, a cushy job, and small town fame.
We stick with the Mark and The Program as we are taken on the same rollercoaster ride; we have been buying into The Program with its rules and its success stories. As he gets deeper and deeper into The Program, and they dictate what he buys and eats, he remarks how much he likes them and even says that they remind him of his mother and childhood.
The Program sets Mark up with a great job where they begin to get their repayment for improving his life. They instruct Mark to use his new found success and social media celebrity to promote the companies and products they chose. There are sections that could be inserted into a “Social Media for New Businesses” article. The Program is either a foolproof way to make it in life, or the best guerrilla-marketing scheme ever.
It isn’t until the disappearances, distressed co-workers, fires, and threats on Mark’s life do we begin to get a bit skeptical. Then when Mark question himself and his possible actions, he begins to have flashes and dreams of actions he didn’t previously remember and finding notebooks full of his hand writing, that he had no recollection of writing, we begin to unearth layers of suspicion that had been building.
We question what we think about The Program, about our narrator, about his sanity, about our sanity. Until we realize that this questioning is part of Donnelly’s plan. We are supposed to be trusting and suspicious at the same time. Donnelly does a great job of pulling us in both directions. We are left wondering if any of this really happened, if The Program exists.
Has our narrator hallucinated it all, did some events happen and then our narrator had a break with reality, or is he accomplishing these things in the absence of an all knowing, all powerful program? We never know if the people he interacts with are made up or if they have been meshed with different people who he interacts with. As we are oscillating back and forth, we begin to see the underlying message of the novel, we begin to see what Donnelly was getting at the whole time.
Gripped is a fantastic tongue-in-cheek commentary on our current society. It makes us take a look at our lives and ourselves, forcing us to reevaluate the role of social media in our lives, and how much stock we put into the opinions of those in the media. We, the readers, are left wondering if corporations are turning us into drones, celebrities telling us which brands to buy, and then we go an tell more people about those brands.
Is the joke on us when we all believe that we are making these decisions based on our own personal taste? Or are we all being controlled by someone, or are we all controlled by the same someone (or corporation of someone’s) and don’t realize their reach and power in our lives?
It also makes us examine the personal element of the whole social media phenomena--what does it mean to be successful today and by whose standards? But even with all of the current practices that are exposed for their ridiculousness, we still sit and wonder, Can you get ahead without connections? These are all questions that Gripped raises and the reader is left to ponder and examine in our own lives.
No matter how tongue in cheek, Gripped does not take the expected, “social media is evil and is ruining our personal relationships” stance. Though it does go to the point of absurdity, it begins as a way to support and foster human interaction – even if it is just a form of marketing, it was still getting people to talk to one another.
Over all Gripped is a very enjoyable novel, it keeps you turning the pages as you try to figure out where reality and fantasy meet, all the while delivering a solid dose of social commentary. All the while contemplating, what can we accomplish when we are afraid for our lives?