Here's an eye-opening statistic cited in "Kids Run the Show": One-third of children already have a digital life at birth.
I'm guessing it's not something author Delphine de Vigan made up, anymore than she invented the performative online existence depicted in her book: "This staging of the self, of one's family, one's everyday life, the pursuit of 'likes' ... It had all become a way of life, a way of being in the world."
The staging, in this case, is done by Mélanie, a young Frenchwoman who once dreamed of being a reality TV star and has finally found her medium in motherhood. Mélanie's YouTube channel, Happy Recess, that features her children Sammy and Kimmy is a sensation. "Capturing their daily life began the moment they woke up ... the most ordinary errand became fodder for a story."
Then Kimmy goes missing — playing hide-and-seek, she's never found — and Clara Roussel, evidence custodian on the Paris Crime Squad, is called in. In Clara, as determinedly offline as Mélanie is on, we have our surrogate explorer of the novel's virtual realm: "This little six-year-old girl had disappeared in the world, the real world, and Clara knew its dangers only too well. But Kimmy Diore had grown up in a parallel universe, a world of make-believe, from start to finish, a virtual world Clara did not know. A world that obeyed rules she knew nothing about."
So Clara watches endless hours of Happy Recess and makes her report:
"These videos have been seen over 500 million times..."
"Consumer fulfillment is at the heart of most of the scenarios. Shopping, unwrapping, and eating are the children's principal activities."
With Kimmy's kidnapping at its center, "Kids Run the Show" has the shape of a thriller, but it's more sociological than mysterious and more interesting than involving. Clara's investigation is a study of the strangeness of family life as performance. Mélanie's story is an extended reflection of how one goes from "searching for an intoxication that might fill that nameless void" or "dream[ing] of a world of solidarity and exchange" to turning one's family into "The Truman Show."
Santiago Valdo, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst consulted years later, offers an expert perspective on the consequences of children "being made to play their own role, every day ... And 'role' is the operative word here, because in reality no one is ever their real self in front of the camera."
But what if, as one suspects in Mélanie's case, the self in front of the camera is in fact the real one? "She's a fairy, after all, she's not afraid. ... Fairies are above the contingencies of the world and the vile attacks it can spawn."
It's hard to say, as the novel puts us into the viewer's position, participating vicariously in the story de Vigan tells, but never really, never quite, feeling it — and for a reader like me, who's never had the least inclination to keep up with the Kardashians, as bemused as ever by its appeal.
Kids Run the Show
By: Delphine de Vigan.
Publisher: Europa Editions, 304 pages, $26.