As much as the Internet has become a fixture in our lives, we seem to just be waking up to its darkest capabilities. The Web isn’t just a tool that makes the world interconnected and flat; it’s also something with a uniquely swift ability to destroy people.
Author Helen Schulman serves up a searing example in her novel, “This Beautiful Life.”
The Bergamots are near their apex: Richard, the patriarch, a handsome, distance running Ph.D., has recently landed a plum gig at a New York City university. His wife, Lizzie, a well-educated housewife, is excited to no longer be on the periphery of high society. Their still winsome teenage son, Jake, is settling in well enough at a private high school, while Coco, the family’s baby, is making her own social inroads.
Collectively, they’re a kind of a personification of the American Dream. But this is a ruse. The building up is done only so we can see the Bergamots crumble in a truly 21st-century way.
The night after Jake meets, and ultimately rejects, a young woman named Daisy at a party, she emails him a graphic video of herself. Flummoxed, Jake makes a terrible decision. He forwards the email to a trusted friend. That friend forwards it to a friend and so on. Within days, Daisy, and by proxy, Jake, are Internet sensations of the worst sort.
This is a plot that, as the saying goes, is ripped from the headlines. Alerting the world to an ominous trend, though, isn’t really Schulman’s goal. Schulman is instead plumbing the human wreckage that follows an Internet catastrophe. It’s a toll that lingers in the cache of people’s lives long after the audience of the Web has moved on to the next trending topic.
In elegant but straightforward prose, Schulman charts the Bergamots as they come undone. She does so with a sharp eye for detail while credibly switching voices. Her writing is just as plausible taking on the voice of a fretting housewife as when she ventures into the brain of a male teenager.
The Bergamots believe they can weather the scandal. After Jake is suspended from school, dutiful Richard lawyers up. Lizzie wants to soothe Jake, thinking, with some logic, that her son is also a victim. Even as the parents try to clear the history — though no charges are pressed and Jake is readmitted to school — it’s obvious that nothing can be truly undone.
When he returns to school, Jake is greeted alternatively as a scoundrel and an anti-hero, which at first horrifies him, then propels him into a clean break with his innocence and a steep, downward trajectory.
Richard’s employers pull him back from a public role, his first real professional failure. Lizzie is haunted. She watches Daisy’s video over and over again and wanders around the house in a stupor. Her fog only lifts for good when she sees Coco mimic the video’s lurid dance for her schoolmates, after she watched it when Lizzie forgot to close a window on her computer.
A more spectral, but no less fascinating, presence is Daisy. We only see her viewpoint clearly once, years after the scandal. She alone seems to have moved on with something like success, but she is in many ways still a childlike presence.
“Life” is part allegory, part character study. Nothing is as unstable as a family, particularly in a digital age. Though it is seriously melancholy — don’t expect real redemption for anyone — it is an artfully told and important story.