In Matt Richtel’s new novel, The Cloud, Nathaniel Idle is not your typical hardass investigative reporter with a steely jaw and even flintier eye. Yes, he is an investigative reporter and has won some accolades exposing the dangers of unbridled technology, but noir, tabloid or espionage are not words that you could apply to him or his lifestyle. More like scrabbling, a bit lost, and modest.
Still reeling from the end of what he thought was a solid relationship with the mother of his (then) unborn child eight months earlier, Nat is managing occupationally if not quite yet emotionally. His life seems somewhat unfocused, somewhat forlorn – that is until the anonymous night he is accosted by what he took as a random drunk while waiting for the subway train.
The drunkard lunges, or trips. He careens toward me, leading with his arms as if pushing through a revolving door.
The train’s warning horn explodes.
Powerful palms crash against my chest, fingers claw my sweatshirt. I stumble backward toward the track. I flail to cling to his beefy forearms.
I feel the train pass behind me, airbrushing my scalp.
Isaac. My son. Will I see him again?
Nat’s quick response keeps the pair from tumbling into the path of a passing train, but the weight of the huge man slams him onto the concrete floor and his head cracks against the edge of the platform. By the time Nat is able to move, the drunk has lurched off leaving behind nothing but a slip of paper that has fallen from his pocket. A lovely young woman that Nat had noticed earlier hurries over to assist him, but except for a nasty knock on his head and a definite wooziness that indicates a serious concussion, he seems to be otherwise okay. But something doesn’t feel right, beyond the lightheadedness and fuzzy perceptions. Shaking off the woman’s aid, Nat scrambles to retrieve the fallen piece of paper, hoping that it may give him a clue to the man’s identity. But written on the paper is something that takes him aback – on the piece of paper is written two names. One of them is his.
From this sudden encounter starts a breakneck story of intrigue that has Nat scrambling to piece together just why he was drawn into an ever widening mystery and working out how he should proceed as bits of the puzzle come to light. Nat will draw on his investigative skills to learn that he has somehow been tied to some kind of threat involving experiments on children and something known as the Cloud: a technology that on the surface is a vast repository of data, but has the power to impact how we relate to emerging technologies and may possibly be affecting not only our actions but even the very neurological order of our brains.
Author Matt Richtel is acutely capable of writing about the threat of technology seeing that, along with being a bestselling author, he is also a reporter for the New York Times covering the fields of technology and telecommunications. He won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his series on distracted driving and how heavy technology use impacts attention, and currently is focused on writing about how the technology we use impacts the way we live our lives.
But along with his expertise also comes a very engaging fictional writing style. What I most appreciated while reading The Cloud was how relatable Nat is, even though his background has very little in common with any of my own experiences. Richtel has created a character who is admirable but is also capable of very human failings. Nat Idle is knowledgeable but not a know-it-all. He is witty, but uses it to disarm rather than as a blunt or cutting weapon. He has learned certain techniques throughout his career that he uses with great success, but he seems unable to turn his skills inward; his unresolved issues with grief and loss can and do hamper his insights and responses. But bottom line, he is genuinely a good guy, and could be the fellow who lives in the upstairs apartment or works in the cubicle next door.
A twist to the story that I found interesting was how, for much of the narrative, Nat was laboring with the effects of his nasty concussion while attempting to unravel the burgeoning mystery that ends up surrounding him. This allows for an occasional sense of the character looking at his actions and reactions from a distance, adding to the surreal and paranoid atmosphere while ratcheting up the tension a notch. Punctuated and half realized memories plague him constantly, often at inopportune times, and key us in to a realization that Nat’s outward struggles with circumstance mirror an internal turmoil that may be just as detrimental to him as the shadowy figures that trail him, and that what he does not know in the here and now reflects something just as evasive in his personal life. It is only when he comes to grips with both that he is able to piece together what is real and what is perceived threat – but will that realization come soon enough? And at what cost?
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Cloud, even though it is somewhat outside of my genre-of-choice. There was one storyline at the end of the book that was not explicitly resolved – I guess Richtel wanted to leave it open-ended to allow the reader to make their own conclusions – but I would have preferred to not have been left hanging. Other than that, I felt like I had taken the journey along with Nat instead of simply sitting back and watching the plot develop, and that takes superior writing to keep the reader engaged and involved through all the twists and turns and surprises. The Cloud is indeed a thriller that will sweep you along, and, once you are done, its cautionary tone will have you reevaluating the devices you use and why – and perhaps keep you from stepping too close to the edge next time you are on a subway platform… just in case.