In a matter of decades, the modern internet has become such a ubiquitous part of daily existence for many that life without it seems unimaginable. Every once in a while, a work of creativity will prompt intense, multifaceted reflection on the role of the internet in our lives and how it interacts with our social constructions and contracts. Alex McElroy’s debut novel, “The Atmospherians,” is one such work.
Satire is a difficult balancing act of writing, and McElroy manages it beautifully.
In the book, a phenomenon in which men “horde” together forms the backdrop for a nuanced, sticky exploration of masculinity and the roles people play in a binary world. Hordes occur spontaneously, and men involved have no memory of their participation. The hordes do things associated with masculinity, from mowing lawns and changing tires to property damage and murder. This amusing conceit is only one layer in a more complex story.
“The Atmospherians” follows Sasha Marcus, a disgraced influencer whose small lifestyle business, ABANDON, had her poised on the brink of fame until a tragic and disturbing event derails her. In the aftermath, childhood friend Dyson shows up at her door with the idea of starting a cult to reform and rehabilitate men from their toxic masculinity. It is called The Atmosphere, its members The Atmospherians — “a film term,” Dyson explains. “Another word for extras: people who provide the atmosphere and stand in the background. What better aspiration for men?”
One of the greatest strengths of “The Atmospherians” is how profoundly it pushes into the ways in which binary thinking and prescribed notions of identity and worth are harmful.
Harmful behavior, resulting from gendered or capitalist expectations, is the main villain of this story. The men behave badly, of course, but Sasha is also vapid and flawed. She lives with her own grief over what could have been, and guilt for introducing Dyson to the often-women-coded world of eating-disorder behavior. “When Dyson said, Show me how to have a body like yours,” Sasha narrates, “what I heard was: Show me how to internalize expectations … Show me how to obsess over myself. To hate myself. To see my body as something both valuable and worthless, something constantly under construction.” Pain from the Catch-22 of living in a body under capitalism and all of its attendant commodification and rules is a shared experience for Sasha, Dyson and the rest of the characters.
It is, of course, hard to maintain a lot of empathy for the “terrible men,” who are almost all white, which is why satire works for this narrative. It is also hard to talk about the painful experience of living in an overly gendered capitalist country without talking about the inherently racist and anti-Black bedrock on which it stands. McElroy makes a point to focus the lens on toxic masculinity as it rests in whiteness, and how this doesn’t only affect white men.
For example, in a storyline that ingeniously pokes at cancel culture, the Black head of Defense Against Mistakes (DAM), an app that “shows users how their words will be interpreted by people outside of their communities” to protect (rich, white) people from their “15 minutes of shame,” recruits Sasha to work in their capital-D Diverse offices.
Ultimately, Sasha is both contemptuous of most of the other characters and a voice of insight. Her almost meta awareness is a boon for the story, and her anger is oddly refreshing. Of the Atmospherians, she says, “I wanted to hurt them. I believed seeing them hurting might free me of my anger, as if justice were some kind of cosmic seesaw. … This is not justice, however. This is revenge. And there is no end to revenge.”
But Sasha, who perhaps most embodies the complexities of messy humanity in the book, also observes, “I wanted to make my body permeable, to blend with the branches and soil and birdsong and sun until I dissolved into my surroundings, past and present and future.”
Existing both inside and outside of time, living in a body both solid and utterly permeable — throughout “The Atmospherians,” McElroy exposes the cognitive dissonance required to live in a world in which everything exists alongside everything else all at once, the world of the internet. It is a brilliant debut, marking McElroy as a writer to watch.