The past few years have seen a string of high-profile novels in which the author—it’s always a man, as far as I can tell—seeks to dramatize the perils of our increasing enmeshment with multimedia and technology. (Among the most prominent of many: The Circle by Dave Eggers, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris.) Lest we hadn’t noticed or properly understood, such stories warn that, for example, addiction to smartphones and tablets is replacing human intimacy. Or reality television is warping cultural attitudes and fueling exhibitionism. Or Google/Facebook/Twitter are steadily eroding individual privacy and autonomy while the hoi polloi are hypnotically absorbed in liking and RTing and proclaiming to be #blessed.
The latest novel in translation by Italian author, playwright, and screenwriter Diego De Silva at first glance belongs to the swelling genre of paternalistic parables for the digital age. In My Mother-in-Law Drinks—De Silva’s sixth novel and the second to be narrated by bad-tempered Neapolitan lawyer Vincenzo Malinconico—a character takes a very contemporary approach to achieving justice for his son, shot dead, with a friend, when out one night. Armed with a gun, and in a supermarket of all places, the grieving father—an engineer named Romolo Sesti Orfeo—captures the Mafia boss on whose orders the young men were killed in a likely case of mistaken identity. Malinconico, meanwhile, is desultorily browsing the jars of ready-made pasta sauce (his name means “melancholy,” and he does his best to live up to it), only to be reluctantly conscripted into a bold and potentially dangerous scheme: the staging of a trial, featuring him as the defense attorney, to be broadcast live on television and concluding with the execution of the “defendant.” Having originally designed the store’s video security system, the engineer (as he is always tagged) programs it to display the trial participants—himself, his captive handcuffed to the dairy case, Counselor Malinconico, and a random deli counter guy—on every screen.
“Think of what a bargain this is for a TV network,” says the engineer. “All they have to do is drive over, train their cameras on my monitors, and broadcast it on the national news.”
And drive over with alacrity the TV crews unsurprisingly do. Following an agonizingly drawn-out trial whose “cobbled-together verdict” failed “to punish the guilty or compensate the victims,” the engineer is anxious for a “real” audience, made up of the entire nation, to learn the truth: that his son was an innocent victim, whose death falls directly on the head of the gangster now at his mercy. A court of law, he insists, is a spent institution, and criminal prosecutions inevitably farcical, whereas the television version of a trial “shapes an audience, splits it into those in favor and those against,” and “is a thousand times more impactful.”
Five years ago, when the novel was first published in Italy, this portrayal of mass media’s clout utterly dwarfing that of a flawed and anachronous legal system may have seemed lightly satirical, a minor exaggeration for comic effect. But in light of the huge international public response to NPR’s Serial podcast, and with the prospect of Adnan Syed winning his freedom thanks to, essentially, the court of public opinion, such a take on the power of the audience—and the blurring of the line between factual reporting and entertainment—conspicuously mirrors current reality.
Often, however, the ideas that De Silva channels through his protagonist lack originality in ways that aren’t prescient, just dull. Malinconico’s loquacious narration, as well as detailing the events unfolding at the supermarket, devotes itself to long interludes about his sexy lawyer girlfriend, his psychologist ex-wife, his grown-up kids, and his titular mother-in-law, all padded out with musings on countless other topics. The endless pontifications on modern life are meant, presumably, to make us laugh both at and with this neurotic blowhard; the problem is, Malinconico’s undisciplined ramble is only truly funny or insightful about half the time. (“Since reality shows are documentaries about human misery made for nonscientific purposes,” goes one especially bromidic reflection, “we watch them to feel superior.”) Still, the novel is always stunningly well-written on the sentence-level—even when I was bored by a digression about, say, the specific type of impulsivity elicited by texting, I was delighted by the uninhibitedness and sheer stylishness of the prose—and the translation by Anthony Shugaar is faultless, extraordinary. Here’s Malinconico struggling not to argue with his bossy stepdaughter:
“I delicately caress my face with my left hand as if to console myself, while also quelling the sudden urge of that recurrent rancor which the more identical it seems to the last time it washed over me, the more offensive I find it, mocking in its persistence, indifferent to my attempts to dismiss it; but the mitigating effects of my small autoerotic gesture are almost immediately shipwrecked, because I’m simply incapable of restraining myself.”
It’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that, despite giving a dubious performance on the live reality show trial, during which he viciously mocks a reporter for her dentures and taste in clothes (as he says, “it’s incredible how television manages to liberate the overweening jackass that lives inside us all”), Malinconico becomes professionally sought after, idolized, and beloved on account of his instant fame. He is, in other words, a beneficiary of the prevailing system he’d earlier bemoaned, where “it is possible to establish oneself as a prominent public figure in the complete absence of talent or skill.” Yet while most readers will have seen this coming, ultimately De Silva’s satire surpasses mere didactic mansplaining by virtue of its all-inclusiveness: Malinconico is disgusted by tradition as well as modernity, by convention as well as rebellion, and most of all by his own blundering masculinity, which is X-rayed with a mercilessness rarely seen in fiction by either men or women. Habitually unfaithful not primarily out of greed or dissatisfaction or even insecurity, but out of weakness and passivity, Malinconico is also incapable of ending relationships. His reasoning, which rings horribly authentic, perfectly expresses the particular brand of privileged male apathy so unflinchingly conjured by De Silva: “I don't want to take responsibility for losing something important. I don't see why I should. If I'm going to have to lose something important, I'd rather have someone else take the blame for it.”