Jarett Kobek

Serpent’s Tail, £12.99

After denouncing social media, gentrification and the comic book industry’s attitude towards intellectual property in 2016’s landmark novel I Hate the Internet, Kobek cranks it up a notch here.

The ostensible plot is a fantasy about the immortal Celia, who hails from an island of fairies and sets off in search of her daughter, who has gone to live among humans in Los Angeles. With a kill-happy bodyguard by her side, Celia traverses the magical psycho-geography of LA, crossing paths with an eloquent Saudi prince who has a voracious appetite for drugs and perverted sex.

This thin plot, however, is only there to provide jumping-off points for Kobek’s furious, iconoclastic political critique. Barely has the book begun before he’s stuck the knife into his alma mater, NYU, for courting “petrol feudalism” in Abu Dhabi, and turned on Penguin Random House, publisher of his previous book, for being owned by Bertelsmann, “which spent much of World War Two producing Nazi propaganda and using Jewish slaves to work in its factories”.

“My book was backed by Nazi money!” he declaims. “And it still failed!” Acknowledging his own complicity in the system makes Only Americans Burn in Hell more of a stab in the back than a face-on assault, rendering it funnier and more cathartic, though ultimately more troubling. And it really is funny. Rather than writing earnest political diatribes, Kobek has elected to experience the giddy thrill of being the man who shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.

He’s dressed it up as a fantasy novel because that’s the kind of “sorry bullshit” people want to read post-9/11. And also so that, by belatedly revealing his fairies’ “Afro-textured hair” and dark skin, he can make a point about social media going thermonuclear over diversity in films about “supranatural” beings while real-life American military and intelligence operations against multiple African nations goes unremarked. Before our eyes, he sabotages the novel he thinks we want to read because “the entire purpose of fiction has been outmoded and destroyed by vast social changes”.

Inevitably, Trump’s shadow looms large over this book, but contextualised as the product of an America built on slavery, genocide and warfare, the ritual abuse of the poor on daytime television, the invisible prejudices of privilege, the exclusion of working-class voices from literature and a million dead in Iraq. All this, and there’s still room for fairy magic, chemsex and an earnest discussion of the lyrics of King Diamond.

On top form, Kobek is like a great stand-up comic, bringing to his writing a manic rush of urgency, intensity and actual danger. And like a good stand-up he never lets his audience get too comfortable. He despairs of America’s inability to organise and oppose effectively, and its obliviousness to the fact that its chosen vehicle of protest, social media, simply provides more income for the tiny group of billionaires who own the platforms; that, ironically, the #MeToo debate enriched a small coterie of old white males. It ends, not with a bang or a whimper, but a mic drop.