I imagine it must be difficult to write fiction about issues such as toxic masculinity without being cloying, or at worst didactic. For that reason, I usually avoid works that overtly address this topic. However, I think I’ve finally found a book that covers these issues successfully, in Alex McElroy’s debut novel, The Atmospherians.
Popular social media wellness coach Sasha is “canceled” for allegedly driving an internet troll to suicide. Sasha suggests that the world would be a better place without said troll, so knowing how his actions could destroy her career, he chooses to live-stream his own suicide. Sasha is labelled a bully and a murderer.
Sasha’s friends stop calling, all except one of her oldest friends, Dyson. Dyson has set up a camp to reform problematic men, and wants Sasha to come on board. See, there’s a problem with men; they’ve started forming “man hordes”, grouping together and performing mindless tasks as if they were zombies. Such as fixing cars of unwilling participants with the driver still inside, trespassing and weeding gardens, and other more sinister acts.
I loved the ever-so-slightly-familiar world McElroy has created in this novel. I personally found our protagonist Sasha to be an incredibly engaging character. Flawed, yes, but absolutely human. The treatment she receives from the public, her friends, pretty much everyone she encounters, is horrifying. And also, all too familiar. But she owns her story. If The Atmospherians ever got adapted for the screen, this would be an absolute killer role for a young actor.
The Atmospherians refers to the male reform camp, which is also referred to as a cult. I can understand this concept may not appeal to everyone, but it’s really well done. Not only do we see the flaws of the male members, we also see the way Dyson and Sasha are basically fumbling their way through their new career as cult leaders. There are some real laugh out loud moments; no one in this book knows what the hell they’re doing. But does anyone?
The story is very compelling; I found the ending especially gratifying. While the novel plays with some complex ideas, the plot is very easy to follow. It’s a very 2021 novel. It’s so bizarre to think that the huge issues addressed in this book didn’t enter the public consciousness until recently. The concept of a “social media” star will always be alien to me.
There are shades of Palaniuk, and Coupland, but The Atmospherians is very much a brand new story. Okay, revenge isn’t new, but we’re inheriting new ways to enact it every single day.
The Atmospherians will be released in the US on May 18 2021, by Atria Books. Click here to find out more!
Thanks to the wonderful people at Atria for the ARC.