A Dystopian Cocktail, Served Chilled With a Twist

By Julie Zeh

If you want to write a dystopian novel in these quasi-dystopian times, you need to go dark. Really dark. And the premise of Juli Zeh’s bracing, furious novel, “Empty Hearts,” is so dark that I laughed out loud when I read it on the book’s back cover. Britta, “a wife, mother and successful businesswoman,” runs a start-up called, innocuously, The Bridge, which algorithmically scours the internet in search of despondent people, then matches them up with terrorist organizations to act as suicide bombers. There’s your dystopian cocktail, served chilled: the internet as universal despair enabler, a global climate of societal chaos and a data-harvesting company well positioned to exploit both. As I said — go dark or go home.

Zeh, the recipient of several German literary awards and a former United Nations worker, sets her tale in a disarmingly plausible version of near-future Europe, troubled not just by Brexit but by Frexit (France), Swexit (Sweden) and Spexit (Spain). The current American president continues to cast a long shadow, while Angela Merkel has resigned in defeat. She’s been replaced by Regula Freyer, head of the fascistically inclined Concerned Citizens’ Crusade, who scores populist points by promising to ban imported beers in Germany. (“German beer is German tradition.”)

The novel opens not with mayhem but with the spick-and-span kitchen of a spick-and-span house in the spick-and-span city of Braunschweig, one of the medium-size German burgs that Britta champions as “towns that obey the laws of pragmatism down to the smallest detail.” Her home is a “concrete cube with a lot of glass” because “if you have no desire to indulge in any self-deception about the times you live in, then polished concrete is exactly what you can still love.” This is Britta to a T: cold-eyed, opportunistic and unburdened by bothersome principles. She secretly scoffs at an idealistic friend who “has yet to understand that politics is like the weather: It happens, whether you watch it or not.” When she’s not hosting elegant dinner parties, Britta’s running The Bridge along with her partner, Babak, a brilliant Iraqi immigrant who designed the company’s algorithm, code-named Lassie.

The Bridge is humming along, happily servicing organizations from ISIS to environmental extremists, when Britta and Babak get news of a botched suicide attack they had nothing to do with. As with any company facing an imperiled market share, they respond swiftly and soon find themselves entangled with a menacing, mustachioed entrepreneur named Guido Hatz. (While I never puzzled out whether the Pynchonesque character names are actual anagrams, in either English or German, reader, I was tempted.)

“Empty Hearts” has the veneer of a thriller but it’s more accurate to call it a chiller: chilling in the accuracy of its satire and chilling in its diagnosis of our modern malaise. The novel may appear at first glance to be a facile “Wake up, yuppies!” parable, but it guides us with assurance toward thornier terrain. For starters: How eager would you be to abandon your democratic principles in the fight to preserve them? How eager should you be? By the novel’s end, Britta has an awakening of sorts, though it may not be the one that you expect. She examines her complicity in this fractured historical moment, in which she “can’t be a voter or a citizen anymore, or even a customer and a consumer, but only a service provider, a member of a service team that supports and supplements the collective journey to the abyss.” The novel takes its title from a fictional pop lyric that’s adopted as a slogan by a resistance army but, to the American reader at least, it may recall the inspirational chant from “Friday Night Lights”: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” By the end of “Empty Hearts,” the eyes are definitely clear, but winning no longer seems to be an option.

Adam Sternbergh’s most recent novel is “The Blinds.”

By Juli Zeh
Translated by John Cullen
288 pp. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. $26.95.

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