Catfishing on Catnet

Naomi Kritzer
Tor Teen ($17.99)

by Aidan Bliss

The emergent media targeting today’s young adult demographic will necessarily make some allusion to the internet and its perpetual reconstruction of social activity. Contemporary works inevitably cut away to text messages and social media, from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars to Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why. These new modes of communication will occasionally inform the entire format of a piece, as is the case with Lauren Myracle’s ttyl and Andrew Hussie’s Homestuck.

Naomi Kritzer opts for a restrained immersion into the cyber teen experience with her young adult novel Catfishing on Catnet. From the title alone, Kritzer’s specific interest in the internet is apparent. There are entire chapters of this novel reserved for chat room dialogues and the internal musings of artificial intelligence, but Kritzer strives to leave space for her main character’s irl tale as well.

Steph’s story is one of constant turbulence, as she is perpetually on the run with her mom from a shadowy and very abusive (pinkie mutilating!) ex-husband. Unable to stay in one place for long, the majority of Steph’s social life takes place in internet chatrooms that provide cute narrative pit stops throughout. Kritzer makes a significant nod to the newfound accessibility of queerness for young people on the internet, as cyber confidants with usernames like “Boom Storm” or “FireStar” vent about getting dead-named or misgendered. The authenticity of this dialogue is impressive and could be trusted by any high schooler who’s even tangentially on Tumblr.

Steph herself is questioning her queerness or lack thereof, a tender tie-in to the fundamental uncertainty of her life. Her writing frequently includes iterations of “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure,” which works well as a healthy, realistic acknowledgement of the process that is coming out and/or coming to understand one’s own sexuality and identity:

“Are you talking about one friend or more than one friend?”
“One friend. They use singular-they pronouns because ‘they’ is non-gendered and my friend is nonbinary.”
Rachel makes a face, and I wonder if I’m going to have to explain nonbinary genders. But instead she says, “Bryony said last year she wanted everyone to use xie instead of she, but her father threw a fit and told the teachers at the school they weren’t allowed. They didn’t want to, anyway. Does everyone just call your friend ‘they’ and it’s not, like, an issue?”
“Bryony is non-binary?”
“I don’t know.”

When combined with Kritzer’s convincingly queer-high-school-student dialogue, this unknowingness is just fine. However, the nearly omnipresent uncertainty has some unpleasant side effects.

It’s frustratingly rare for her characters to experience meaningful resolution—in terms of coming out or in pretty much any other regard. When shit hits the fan, when Steph’s mom is hospitalized and can’t protect her, when Steph doesn’t know what to do (often the case), things just gets fixed—not by her, but by the self-aware A.I. CheshireCat. A deus ex machina written like C-3PO if 3PO were programmed to be a vigilante queer advocate, the A.I. trivializes almost all of Steph’s obstacles. Bad teachers at her new school get blackmailed into quitting. Her abusive father gets incapacitated first by hacking into a self-driving car and then kitchen robots. Anything at stake gets tossed.

Kritzer eventually goes all in on the speculative, making the A.I. the only truly dynamic character in the novel. This flaw aside, however, Catfishing on Catnet offers a promising character study of awkward teenage girlhood, with a captivating backdrop of familial instability and queer questioning in the internet age.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020