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Review: ‘Come With Me,’ by Helen Schulman

December 14, 2018

“Come With Me,” Helen Schulman’s sendup of Silicon Valley, nods at tech-world tropes — young CEOs working out of their dorm rooms; entire relationships conducted via internet — but the novel’s primary concern is “weary-to-the-bone” Amy Reed, an overworked mother of three with an unemployed journalist husband and a casually sadistic boss.

Her boss, Donny — a junior in college — demands that Amy test his “multiverse product,” in which the user experiences alternative versions of his or her own life. This is merely “aggregation of information, plus math,” as Donny describes it. “Our clients can ask: What would have happened if I’d taken that job? Who would I have met? … All of life’s regrets and little mysteries answered with … A scientific approximation. Using AI.”

Amy’s parallel lives draw on previous traumatic events, including her brother’s murder, and the multiverse experiments are a torment to her.

Schulman is wise to make Amy a runner, not only because the running passages are so richly visual — Amy runs “a single-file trail through velvety deep wilderness, fecund and foresty, dull emerald treetops and rust-colored tree trunks” — but also because there is so little room in Amy’s life for contemplation, and running is one of few respites from a countless stream of demands.

Her twins, Miles and Theo, both get into trouble at school. Her husband Dan, who spends most of his time staring at his phone, abruptly flies to Japan to follow a woman of whom he’s enamored (and, secondarily, to pursue a story); worse, he claims he’s in Boston at a job interview. The only reliable person in Amy’s life is her adolescent son, Jack, whose long-distance relationship with his girlfriend, Lily, takes place on their respective screens.

The novel regards Jack and Lily without mockery; indeed, Dan, back in Palo Alto after embarking on his affair, recognizes that Jack and Lily “have found true love!” Jack’s earnestness serves as a kind of humbling foil to the conflicted adults around him.

There are plenty of auxiliary characters swirling around Dan and Amy, and occasionally the novel digresses deeply into their lives: a passage set in Texas, where Lily’s mother, Cindy, survives an assault, feels disconnected to the central story in Palo Alto. Kevin Choi, Jack’s best friend, is on the page infrequently, but he makes a decision that upends the lives of nearly everyone Amy knows.

At its best, the novel is quietly playful — Amy’s last name is “Reed,” and her husband’s is “Messinger,” a remark, perhaps, on their flawed communication. Though Dan is never subjected to Donny’s “Furrier” product, he indulges in questions of parallel lives the way most people do: He wonders what might have been.

Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in LennyLetter, Narrative, Glimmer Train, the Millions, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.

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