Soylent, the nutrient-packed, colorless meal replacement drink, was introduced to the American public in 2014 after a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign proved people just don’t want to waste precious time and energy eating anymore. When Rob Rhinehart, Soylent’s inventor, was working on a technology startup in San Francisco, he started to see buying, cooking and eating food as a problem hindering his productivity. In an interview with the New Yorker in 2014, Rhinehart said that the food system is “too complex and too expensive and too fragile” – inefficient for the modern man.
Soylent is a perfect, if a bit too obvious, symbol for how capitalism rips apart our humanity in order to convince us that our worthiness is measured by how much money we cycle through the economy before it sits in Jeff Bezos’ bank account. Productivity propaganda has ruined our brains so much that someone made it their mission to bottle a milky substance, with some nutrients in it, and act like it can replace carbs and vegetables and ice cream. And it worked.
So when Soylent makes an appearance in the middle of Kraft, a novel by Jonas Lüscher, recently translated to English by Tess Lewis, it makes perfect sense. The name of this drink comes from a 1970s dystopian sci-fi movie, “Soylent Green,” in which New York City’s population grows so large and food is so scarce that they have to start eating people. Rhinehart was obviously being tongue-in-cheek with his company name, but it’s not really a joke. If he really believes in maximizing productivity to this outrageous extent, cannibalistic-level food scarcity is on the radar of his economic philosophy.
Theoretically, Kraft’s titular protagonist Richard Kraft would agree with Rhinehart. Kraft is obsessed with free-market capitalism, for reasons that are still silly even as he actively engages with them, and it is this obsession that dominates his entire life. But, when Kraft ends up in Silicon Valley, working on a project at Stanford University and is given the chance to see what his beloved system is doing, he bristles.
After overhearing a conversation between two techies in the Stanford dining hall, where one of them sings the praises of the meal replacement drink, Kraft is shocked: “Nine thousand two hundred sixty-one minutes, he says after checking his phone, that’s how much time he’s saved thanks to Soylent.”
“Is this brand name the expression of a strange sense of humor, or, as Kraft supposes, does the inventor think the idea of making foodstuff out of dead people is less outlandish than simply economical?” the book reads.
The joke, which Lüscher spells out, is that Kraft has no real ideology, and cannot justify his perspective in any sensical way: “He catches himself recoiling yet again as he does each time he stumbles across a concrete, practical example of something that is undeniably a real-life consequence of the theories he’s spent his life thinking through and defending.”
The book explains Kraft’s reason for immersing himself in this economic theory that he hasn’t really thought about as the same reason many of us do deeply stupid things: we want attention.
Kraft is, the book says, a “brilliant thinker,” already reading “almost everything you had to read” at the age of twenty-three. “However, because he was just one of several such students, he looked for an effective way to distinguish himself from the others and to this end he turned to Thatcherism.”
Kraft has ended up in Silicon Valley at the invitation of his friend, István Pánczél, a fellow neoliberal and an eccentric. He is there to participate in an essay competition hosted by a Bay Area venture capitalist named Tobias Erkner, who represents the stock Silicon Valley rich tech-bro, who will give a million dollars to the person who can best respond to his prompt: “Theodicy and Technodicy: Optimism For a Young Millennium: Why whatever is, is right and why we still can improve it.”
Kraft is written in a unique third-person narration, and it’s often difficult to decide who’s thinking. But Kraft can clearly see through this Californian bullshit, and there are excellent moments where this old-school German philosopher, who apparently hasn’t done a great deal of critical thinking, comes into contact with the fruits of his theories in Silicon Valley.
At some point, Kraft and his friend István are hanging out in San Francisco with Erkner and some other venture capitalists, eating at a restaurant called THEMAC&CHEESE that only serves one dish: mac and cheese, made with ethically, locally-sourced wheat and dairy.
Erkner’s nonsensical ramblings about his future business plans, which range from starting new “work-life habitats” on huge boats in international waters to defeating death, are starting to get to Kraft, who realizes that he can “ascribe his malaise to the utter irreconcilability of the particular elements in Erkner’s discourse.” I wouldn’t mind reading a whole book making fun of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, especially since Lüscher is so good at satirizing them.
Fantastic snippets of biting satire do not make a coherent story, however, and Kraft has a hard time coming together. The main character can best be described using other examples of disturbed, pseudo-profound and ultimately irritating male leads. He has Hamlet’s pathetic hesitation, Holden Caulfield’s ridiculous pretension, Chip Lambert’s insistence on failing and all of their inclinations to blame their ex-girlfriend or wife for all of their problems.
The fact that the protagonist of this book is so absolutely unbearable does not necessarily doom it: Hamlet, The Catcher in the Rye and The Corrections certainly don’t suffer due to my observation. And Lüscher very clearly acknowledges that his main character is problematic – to say the least – and gets his point across, often to rewarding effect. But Kraft is still not really a story.
Besides Kraft, István and Erkner, the only other mentionable characters are Kraft’s ex-lovers, who, for being so one-dimensional and meaningless to the story, are certainly mentioned a lot. Kraft takes particular note of women’s “broad hips” and “ample bosoms,” but the book is otherwise so clinical and asexual that I can’t even accuse Lüscher of objectifying women.
Rather than call Lüscher sexist, I would simply ask him to consider whether having three different female love interests for the protagonist and giving them essentially no personality traits, interests or character whatsoever, is effective writing.
Around the time you realize that Kraft has very little in the way of dialogue, scene-setting, character development or understandable plot, you also see that the majority of the pages are one long paragraph, sometimes not even broken up into sentences, and you may wonder: Am I getting tricked into enjoying what is clearly Jonas Lüscher’s repackaged philosophical dissertation?
Well, maybe. He says as much in his acknowledgements, and that’s fine. It was an interesting case study in philosophy with a predictable and unfortunate ending. I’ll think twice before drinking Soylent now, though. One: Lüscher, Zero: Me.
By Jonas Lüscher
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published November 10, 2020
Oy… bit of a spoiler about the movie there. No matter (and only the green is made out of… um… you know). By the way, the movie is actually based on a book or short story (I forget which), and my father’s best friend wrote the screenplay – Stan Greenberg! Anyway, this comment is off topic, but still…