How Did Fan Culture Take Over? And Why Is It So Scary?

REBOOT, by Justin Taylor

There are two kinds of novels about American life in the digital age: panoramas and selfies. The former are surveys of a wired world’s structures and networks, like Dave Eggers’s fictionalization of Big Tech in “The Circle” and Jennifer Egan’s interconnected New York in “The Candy House.” The latter, like Patricia Lockwood’s “No One Is Talking About This” and Lauren Oyler’s “Fake Accounts,” are intimate portraits of the experience of being very online.

“Reboot,”Justin Taylor’s second novel (after a fine memoir about his father), splits the screen in an ambitious attempt to accommodate both, while also considering gamers, trolls, stans, chuds*, the mania of online fandom and that beloved, increasingly baroque, bloody American pastime, the conspiracy theory.

The reboot in question is of a TV show called “Rev Beach.” The narrator, David Crader; his best friend, Shayne Glade; and his ex-wife, Grace Travis, starred in this fictional amalgam of “The O.C.” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” some 20 years earlier. Now, lockdown-era streaming has renewed the world’s interest.

Crader, adrift in Portland, Ore., and keen to deny his alcoholism, texts Grace, a Goop-like guru whose media-mogul father has died and left her a fortune, to propose a reboot. He has money troubles and amends to make. She texts back with a long article speculating on a “Rev Beach” revival and recapping the show for the uninitiated. Crader is traveling to Los Angeles the following day for a fan convention, one of the last remaining gigs of his fast-fading celebrity, and the two agree to meet. Like that, the reboot is afoot.

But the plot is no more the point of Taylor’s book than were the exploding vampires of Sunnydale or the beach-town brawls of Orange County. The point, as always, is to get the gang back together, which Crader tries to do — only times have changed. When “Rev Beach” premiered, there was no social media, no steady drumbeat of ecological disaster, no truthers, birthers, Infowars, deep-state boogeymen or near-daily mass shootings on the nightly news. Now, a legion of online fans has made the show its own, with alternative plotlines and character arcs that any reboot would immediately render moot, and Crader fears one of those fans may crawl out of a basement with a gun in hand.

That prospect allows Crader (and Taylor) to ruminate not only on the fate of “Rev Beach” and his castmates but on America and its post-9/11 decline, while introducing a few wrinkles unique to the world of the novel, like a hollow-earth conspiracy theory full of antisemitic tropes. A berserk Amerika lurches into view, in which Crader’s life is both threatened and redeemed, and climate change has jumped the shark.

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