I’m not sure how to classify “Identity Crisis”. It feels like a satire except that it’s unflinchingly honest and that kind of honesty makes me wince rather than smile. It’s not a polemic as it’s not selling a solution, just displaying a problem by flaying the surface of it and exposing the bloody mess underneath. It has too much bitter humour in it to be a dirge or a lament. Perhaps it is just a mirror, held up to make us look at ourselves and take in what we’ve become.
The focus is on how social media is being used to create a climate of fury, to discredit evidence-based argument and to undermine support for any view of the world that is neither angry nor extreme.
It is a world in which appearance is more important than substance, where being “on the right side of history” is achieved by weaponising hashtags to pillory opponents, where identity is more important than information, where the “national conversation” is a curated stream of propaganda that sustains anger and division to pre-empt challenges to extreme political positions.
The story is pitched around a referendum to make England independent of the rest of the UK. It’s told with a bitter wit that was so close to home that I felt like I was watching a vivisection. Although it’s not a long book, I had to take regular breaks from it to allow the feelings of disgust and despair to dissipate.
Ben Elton has a deep understanding of how social media is being used to shift opinion, create and sustain tribalism and distract us from the real agenda being driven by the powerful.
The strongest parts of the book are those that deal with the referendum, with mainstream media and social media response to sexual abuse and with the use of a re-vamped version of “Love Island” to surface issues related to gender and sexuality.
In the end, I felt the novel went nowhere. It was a exposition rather than a narrative. If these issues are new to you, it will make you think. If these issues are known to you then it may confirm your darkest views of what’s happening.
I listened to the audiobook version of “Identity Crisis”, which is narrated by Ben Elton. He does a serviceable job but I would have preferred to have had a narrator with a little more range. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.