109 – Need by Joelle Charbonneau

Purchase Need at Amazon.com“No one gets something for nothing. We all should know better.”

Teenagers at Wisconsin’s Nottawa High School are drawn deeper into a social networking site that promises to grant their every need . . . regardless of the consequences. Soon the site turns sinister, with simple pranks escalating to malicious crimes. The body count rises. In this chilling YA thriller, the author of the best-selling Testing trilogy examines not only the dark side of social media, but the dark side of human nature.
Need is one of those books that makes me acutely aware of the fact that I’m a very nearly thirty-year-old woman reading a book written for people half my age. This puts me in an awkward position – maybe one that I’m in more than I realize, but with Need, I really feel it – because while I may find Need dumb, illogical, patronizing, and actually kind of insulting to the demographic it’s targeted at, I have no goddamn idea how actual teenagers might react to it.

So that’s where I’m at with this review. Maybe this book has shit teenagers need to hear. Maybe the incredibly heavy-handed soapboxing is necessary and good and I mean, I can’t bag on the thing for being anti-cyber bullying, that’s a worthy cause. But as somebody the book was admittedly not written for, and assuming I’m also speaking, at least in part, to other people the book was not written for, Need was kinda crap.

The premise is pretty great though, and that’s what made me grab Need as the first book of my two month-long Halloween spooky story binge. It’s more thriller than horror, but the idea is one of those classic intriguing creepy scenarios that probably won’t have a satisfying explanation: there’s a social network site that will give you anything you need, for a price. The blurb is somewhat vague on what that is, but the reveal near the start of the book takes the intrigue up a notch: the price is that you have to do a thing. Innocuous things, at first: leave a box of cookies on a doorstep; write up a receipt for an order that never existed; slip a sexy note under somebody’s door.

It’s a devious set-up, with this fascinating mystery hovering in the background – who or what is behind NEED, and what is its purpose? – and a great mastermind vibe running throughout. I love the feeling that there’s a huge plan in motion and you’re slowly being shown snippets of it, piecing it together knowing it’ll all add up to something terrible in the end. Masterful manipulation is always my kind of party.

So while it wasn’t off to a flawless start – FYI, third person present tense is the literal worst tense I’ve ever had to read a book in and I hate it – I was pretty fully on board with Need for like the first hundred pages. Then I made the mistake of idly skimming the first paragraph – the first paragraph – of a couple of GR reviews to get a feel for the community reception, and stumbled across a massive spoiler.

A SPOILER THAT I’M TOTALLY GOING TO REPEAT HERE AND YOU PROBABLY SHOULDN’T READ FURTHER IF YOU’RE THINKING OF CHECKING THIS BOOK OUT BECAUSE KNOWING IN ADVANCE REALLY RUINS IT


YOU’VE BEEN WARNED

So yeah it’s the government. The government is responsible for this website that grants teenager’s wishes. And that’s believable for maybe four or five chapters, until one teenager is needlessly and intentionally manipulated into killing another, and then all my suspension of disbelief just threw itself head-first out the window. Like, really?

Hey look, I mean, we all know the (American in this context) government has conducted terrible experiments on and done shitty things to its people basically since inception, right? I’m not saying that’s out of the realm of possibility. But the sheer pettiness of this particular experiment is what pushes it beyond belief for me. Like, why? What could the American goddamn government get out of making some rando teenage girl die of an allergic reaction? Even in an experimental context, what purpose could it serve?

I thought at first that maybe it would turn out that the death was accidental, that they expected her to have an EpiPen and save herself or some shit. That’s a reasonable assumption, and I wouldn’t put it past the government to nearly kill a girl for some dumbfuck reason. But then the site has some kid murder a pack of puppies, and another girl is kidnapped and left to burn to death in an explosion, then a grown-ass woman dies because some kid was told to switch her meds, and people are dropping left and right and kids are being ordered to straight-up shoot people, and I’m just sitting back like REALLY? REALLY? Am I really expected to believe that the government is going to massacre like half the students at some small-town high school via a secret website that literally hundreds of kids somehow keep from their parents and the entire rest of the internet? I’m really meant to believe that the government gives enough of a shit about some rando midwestern teenagers to put this kind of manpower, money, and energy into learning about every little aspect of every one of their lives and then formulating this incredibly intricate domino-effect plan that ultimately comes to nothing except a Bond-villain monologue? Because I really don’t.

Obviously this is more YMMV than most, but this whole plan seemed too petty and too pointless for me to buy. I mean, it’s not even a fully psychological experiment, either, which I might actually believe more than the alternative, but no, it’s an experimental intelligence-gathering operation. The ultimate reveal is that the government is testing out the NEED website’s effectiveness as a means of bribing foreign teenagers to spy for them, which again, is just the most needlessly convoluted fucking thing I’ve ever heard of. It makes so little sense. For one, if this is meant to be a foreign operation, why even bother testing it in the US? The monologuing Bond villain says something about how they’ll have to “adapt for culture”, but that seems like the kind of vitally differentiating aspect that would make a homeland experiment basically pointless.

IMO “did it for the experimentz” is one of the easiest and most disappointing possible explanations you could give for a scenario like this, BUT that actually makes sense, because for me it felt as though the set-up was there less to support a worthwhile payoff, and more to support Need’s message. That message being: teenagers are selfish, entitled, heartless jerks and that’s bad :((((.

That was the other thing that kind of hacked me off about the book. The whole thing had such an old-person-anxiety feel to it, and I say that will full awareness of the irony, thanks. It’s the same feel that you get from those articles about how shitty Millennials are, or from those old episodes of Law & Order where some kid plays Grand Theft Auto or WoW and then goes on a killing spree, or going further back, those movies about murderous LARPers, or evil comic books, or Satanic rock music, or fucking Reefer Madness.

Yeah, cyber-bullying and the dehumanizing nature of internet discourse, those are things we definitely need to be thinking and talking about – and it’s not like people aren’t, already – but the handling here is just so cynical and patronizing. I mean jfc, look at this:

Nate would know. He spends way more time than I do on social networking sites. For me, they’re tools. A method for me to try to track down my father and a way to remind people that DJ needs help. […] Nate, however, loves watching how the people we know behave online. He says it’s the only way to see someone’s true nature. It’s a fairly simple choice to be nice to someone who’s right in front of you. After all, as Nate says, why risk a punch in the face if you don’t have to? But online there’s an invisible shield that Nate claims allows people to feel protected from the consequences of their actions. Because of that, they stop behaving like they are supposed to and instead do what they want. No matter who they upset or hurt.
Pushing to my feet, I walk to my desk and take a seat. NEED showed up and infiltrated our lives in a matter of days without almost anyone noticing it was happening. We’re all so used to new things appearing on the Internet every day that we don’t question what’s behind them before welcoming them into our lives. Because they don’t feel real. NEED knows that. It feeds on the belief that what’s on the public forum of the Internet can’t be all that bad. All sorts of things people wouldn’t have the nerve or the heart to do face-to-face show up online, and most of the time people shrug them off because it’s just the Internet. You can ignore them or convince yourself they aren’t real.
My fingers hover over the keyboard as I try to decide what to say to accompany the photos. I’m scared of typing the wrong thing. Scared people will ignore me. Scared they won’t. Annoyed that I still worry about what people think. If it weren’t for their belief that they can get something for nothing, NEED would be harmless. It would just sit out there on the World Wide Web—powerless to cause harm. As much as I blame NEED for Amanda’s death and any other disasters it has caused, I blame us. All of us. Because I was gullible and asked for something too. Something I never believed would be delivered, but still I asked. No one gets something for nothing. We all should know better.
But Nate’s brother, Jack, likes checking his email. He does it all the time, as if to prove how popular he is. And Jack isn’t the type to delete anything that promises a shot at getting something for nothing. Between his influence and his greed, Jack was a perfect choice to help get NEED up and running.
“That’s the kind of thinking that makes NEED so successful,” I say. “People don’t want to earn enough money or put in the work to get what they want. They’re looking for an easy way out and NEED gives it to them. The person who delivered the cookies to Amanda probably thought it was a birthday gift or some minor prank. They thought they were getting something for nothing. They were wrong.”
I mean, if the assertion is that this whole thing works because teenagers are lazy, entitled, thoughtless pricks, good news, everyone! That’s neither exclusive to nor ubiquitous among teens. #NotAllTeenagers

So yes, the message is important, but I found it poorly-handled. That being said, again, I’m not the intended audience, so who knows! Maybe it gets its point across just fuckin’ peachy for the kids, thank you.

But okay, putting the message + reveal aside, how does the rest of it stand up?

ehhhhhh
The set-up is strong. If I hadn’t stumbled across the spoiler I probably would have enjoyed the NEED shenanigans a while longer. The characters are paper-thin, though, and that’s a problem because the book fluctuates between as many as 10 different narrators, and it was often difficult for me to remember who had done what because they all have similar voices and attitudes. There’s the mercenary boy who’s just doing things for cash, often indistinguishable from Grand Theft Auto boy, who views that whole thing as a video game. There’s the girl with a crush on the protagonist’s BFF/love interest who I occasionally had difficulty distinguishing from the Mean Girl doing things for concert tickets.

Even ignoring their similar-sounding voices, the characters are all just…one-note. As with the reveal, they seem to be there more to serve the message than anything else, the literary equivalent of those kids who decide to smoke cigarettes or do drugs or have sex in after-school PSA’s. Like, “You see that, kids? Gina’s willing to kill somebody for concert tickets. Don’t be Gina.”

Our protagonist, Kaylee, was…very flawed. And that’s great! I appreciate protagonists whose flaws are actually meant to be flaws (though in retrospect, Kaylee’s flaws are very similar to those of a petulant child, and given what the book seems to think about teenagers…). Anyway, there’s a lot of interesting stuff about how illness has broken up her home, and how Kaylee has lied and been so single-minded in her pursuit of a kidney for her dying brother that she’s alienated almost everyone around her, and used up all of her mother’s trust in her. Unfortunately, while this is important to the book, it’s more in terms of logistics, not any heavy emotional drama. It’d make for an interesting thing to explore in a more grounded contemporary novel.

I was also vaguely annoyed by the repeated magical appearance of dudes every time Kaylee got in to some physical scrape. It happened like three times: dudes just turn up to keep her from being shot, or help her drag someone out of a burning building, or shoot the goddamn big bad at the end, because god forbid Kaylee figure some way out of a scrape herself. It was such a weirdly retro vibe, like the few times Kaylee made a choice to physically act on something, she became some 90’s action movie damsel. I’d figured we’d gotten to the point in YA where a female protagonist could generally be allowed to at least save herself in the end, but not here, apparently.

So, weak characters but relatively interesting set-up that just gets sillier the further it goes along.

That said, I want to chat a little about our physically present Big Bad and the actual ending sequence in the novel, because holy crap was that one giant clusterfuck of things that don’t make sense. SPOILERS, OBV.

Basically, the on-site director of the government experiment to make kids kill one another over iPods and concert tickets was the school psychologist, Dr. Jain, a Science Lady with an incredibly confusing and also incidental-seeming backstory in which her husband cheated on her with the protagonist’s mother and fathered the protagonist’s brother.

I have no idea why this is a thing.

Okay, obviously I get why part of it is a thing: the cheating mother is supposed the be the partially ~justifiable~ motivation for Kaylee’s father’s utterly soulless decision to abandon his family when his son’s condition went critical. But I have no idea why it’s specifically Jain’s husband that Kaylee’s mother cheated with. It feels almost insignificant to the character herself; you’d think that okay, the idea is that she’s ~a woman scorned~ and choosing this town for the experiment is her way of exacting revenge, but-

“My mother and your husband are the reasons you came back to Wisconsin?”

“No […] NEED is the reason. […] After years of research and development the program was finally ready for a controlled test. Since I know the area, it was easy for me to insert myself into the community in a manner that put me in a position to evaluate the accuracy of the data we received on our surveys. I could also monitor the reactions of the Network members after the site went live.”
I mean, she could just be lying I guess, but there’s no indication that this is the case in the narrative. She doesn’t even seem to have much of a hate-on for the protagonist, which is kind of what you would expect if ~woman scorned~ were supposed to be part of her motivation. But no, she’s generally portrayed as a cold, detached science robot – “I’mma have someone kill you but I’mma patch you up and give you a morphine shot first because pain is unnecessary and I don’t want to contaminate data” kinda thing – and she’s fair to the protagonist in a way that the plot treats like a huge reveal.

“It’s interesting, but out of all the subjects, circumstances made it so I knew you best, and yet you were the one who presented the biggest surprise. When your chance came to ask the network for something you needed, I thought you’d ask for a way to find your father. If you had, it would have changed everything.”

“Why?”

“If you think about it, I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

The pain has faded but my mind is fuzzy. Yet when I think about it I do know. “Because my father couldn’t be a donor for DJ. Locating him wouldn’t qualify as a need.” And like the site states — there is a difference between a want and a need. “I would have been given a NEED fulfillment request.” DJ could live without finding Dad. A kidney is necessary. I’d like to think I would have ignored the request, but I’m not so sure that I could have given up on the chance to help DJ. I wouldn’t have cared about the consequences of fulfilling the request until it was too late. And then, like Bryan had, I would probably have done anything to prevent my mother or the people in this town from finding out what I had done. I would have been just as bad as everyone else. I might have been worse. It was all a trap. One that I escaped, because Dr. Jain played God and deemed my request a need.

“[…] Yes, you asked for something that your brother will not be able to live without, and that changed everything for you.”
Apparently, a fucking useless-in-practice detail of the way NEED works is that if you ask for something you actually need, as opposed to something you just want, you’re not required to pay any price for it. And since Kaylee’s brother really needed a kidney, she was never given a task to complete.

There are so many dumb-fuck things about this policy that I almost can’t even begin to wrap my head around it. I mean, a) what fucking good does this do in the supposed real-world context for this operation – which again, is to bribe foreign teenagers into spying for the US government? What good does it do to reward them for emotional honesty? Especially if they don’t even realize that they’re being rewarded? Because this part of the deal is never spelled out on the website. This is exactly what it says:

WANT: A DESIRE TO POSSESS OR DO SOMETHING. A WISH.

NEED: SOMETHING REQUIRED BECAUSE IT IS ESSENTIAL. SOMETHING VERY IMPORTANT THAT YOU CANNOT LIVE WITHOUT. WHAT DO YOU NEED?
What it doesn’t say: NEEDS ARE FREE, WANTS COST YOU INFORMATION. And why should it? IT GOES AGAINST THE ENTIRE POINT OF THE OPERATION.

And b), even if it did serve some sort of psychological purpose for the subjects, even if they knew, up front and from the beginning that that was how it worked, it wouldn’t matter, because the teens are given tasks even if they don’t realize that they don’t actually need the thing they’re asking for. In the book, Kaylee has NO IDEA about her mother’s affair, she genuinely believes that her father can save her little brother’s life. But because that isn’t FACTUALLY ACCURATE, if she had asked NEED for her father’s location instead of just “a kidney for her brother”, she would have been made to perform some kind of task to pay for the information.

This makes no kind of sense. That kind of pedantic dedication to not just a useless, but in fact a counter-productive policy is ridiculous. I have no idea why the book decided that needed to be a thing, or why it needed to be emphasized in the end as though it were some kind of mind-bending twist. Just like I have no idea why her father not being her brother’s bio-dad and her mother having had an affair with Jain’s husband were treated like some big reveal when none of that information seems all that relevant to the experiment, or even to Jain herself. It feels like a twist for the sake of a twist – like NEED being a government program and Jain being the villain wasn’t enough, so we had to pull some shit out last-minute to make the wrap-up more dramatic.

Oh yeah, there’s also this:

“You should have just let things be.” Dr. Jain strides to the table, sits down at the computer, and begins to type. She stands again in less than a minute and walks toward me. “The one good thing is that we now know that the most important thing we can do to perpetuate each network cell is to identify those who fit your personality type and eliminate them.”
Um, what? Not two pages ago, the protagonist said this:

I’d like to think I would have ignored the request, but I’m not so sure that I could have given up on the chance to help DJ. I wouldn’t have cared about the consequences of fulfilling the request until it was too late. And then, like Bryan had, I would probably have done anything to prevent my mother or the people in this town from finding out what I had done. I would have been just as bad as everyone else. I might have been worse. It was all a trap. One that I escaped, because Dr. Jain played God and deemed my request a need.
She has literally just said that the only reason that she escaped this web of blackmailed compliance is because Dr. Jain gave her a pass. Maybe “the most important thing you can do to perpetuate each network cell” is not give anyone a fucking pass, you embarrassing excuse for a Science Lady.

So yeah, Need: started strong and steadily rolled down hill until it ended up at the bottom in a smoldering wreck. I have no idea what actual young adults will make of it, but this particular sad adult got nothing but disappointment and vague annoyance. Not recommended.

ONE AND A HALF STARS

Two Stars

Bonus Quotespam


Even if she explains why her mother won’t let her go to the movie theater, he might not believe her. Not many people here in Nottawa know about her peanut allergy. […] Maybe inviting Bryan to the party is the answer. If he comes, she can explain why the movie theater in town is off-limits. If they didn’t roast peanuts, her mother probably wouldn’t have a problem, but since they do…
Is that actually a thing? Like she can’t even go in the building for fear of dying of peanut allergy?

Also, I know I mentioned in passing that there was a Grand Theft Auto kid who took the more violent missions because they were like a “real-life video game”, but oh my god it’s even more painful to read than it sounds.

Hanging around after the job is done is a sure-fire way to lose rank in the game.
In Mercenary of War, players earn power-ups, which provide clues to the best method of locating and eliminating their targets. It’s too bad there isn’t a way to earn clues in this game.
Ethan smiles. Time to finish what he started and bump up his character’s kill ratio.
This isn’t the way this is supposed to work, Ethan thinks. This is wrong. This never happens in the game. But he’s not going to stay on his back or go back a level.
Warm. Wet. He doesn’t care. The blood doesn’t matter. Neither does the fact that he’s known Bryan for years. The only thing that matters is that he’s won.
Mercenary of War, you guys. Oh my god, this, this is what I mean by the feel of old-person anxiety, you guys. jfc is this even a human being???

When I created my account, I didn’t read the Terms and Conditions. I just clicked the button that said I accepted them. After all, aren’t they always the same? Does anyone ever read them?
Are we railing against not reading terms and conditions now???? Because I’m pretty sure South Park‘s already done that, and even they came off like old people standing on their lawns, shaking their canes.

Oh yeah, and in addition to every goddamn thing else, Kaylee has this weird misogynistic streak that pops up in her commentary every now and then?

Amanda was nice. I didn’t know her well, but I knew enough to understand that she wasn’t like everyone else. She didn’t obsess over boyfriends and phones and the hot new music group.
VICKI BOCKNICK
LOUIS VAZQUEZ
MICHAEL DILLMAN
SAMEENA JAHN
GRADY OSTERMAN
AARON ZACHOWSKI
GINA FERGUSON

Dead. They must all be dead. Vicki, with her annoying laugh. Michael, who always wore brightly colored gym shoes. Aaron, the captain of the football team. Gina, with her mean smile and even meaner spirit.
~two of these things are not like the others~

 

7 Responses

  1. Azure

    September 3, 2015 2:11 pm, Reply

    Speaking of South Park, the government’s plan is on par with the Stick of Truth, where the government wants the main character because he’s really, REALLY good at making friends on Facebook. But that was supposed to be funny. This is not. Which does make it funny.

    Though it’s still better than the king and queen’s plan in Red Queen.

    • Cyna Cyna

      September 3, 2015 10:38 pm, Reply

      Ha! That does sound about on par. Maybe someone went diving through South Park’s trash bin.

      Yeah, I guess I have to give you that. At least this plan couldn’t be blown all to hell by a paper cut.

  2. Sae

    September 3, 2015 3:14 pm, Reply

    Your review is, as always, hilarious and thoughtful – I think I’ll steer clear of this one. Unfortunately, I’ve never known a thriller to have a reveal as good as the mystery was, guess this is the same…
    Must say, I am also loving the new logo! XD

    • Cyna Cyna

      September 3, 2015 10:41 pm, Reply

      Thanks Sae! Yeah, that’s the Stephen King conundrum with thrillers and horrors, isn’t it? I think the ones I’ve read that handle that issue best are the ones that leave everything kind of open-ended.

      Thank you again, I love it too! It was drawn by a talented Tumblrite named Becky. Thanks for reminding me, I need to add a credit to our about page!

  3. Lauren

    October 9, 2015 10:47 pm, Reply

    I find it hilarious when you say that your main readers are people you’re age. I’ve been reading this site since I was sixteen. I’m a major feminist and I think this stuff is hilariously true and insightful.

  4. Gabe

    October 15, 2015 5:49 pm, Reply

    This book reminded me of something, couldn’t remember what until I scrolled down and saw Stephen King in the comments. This whole premise definitely reminded me of his novel “Needful Things.”

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