- Meme by Aaron Starmer, Dutton Books for Young Readers, 288 pages. $17.99.
Some suspense novels are whodunits. Aaron Starmer's new young-adult thriller, Meme, is a will-they-get-away-with-it. The novel opens with a confession of sorts: "We buried Cole Weston last night, on the hundred acres behind Meeka's house."
What follows is a murder scene that would be bleak and unsparing even for adult fiction, narrated in fragments by the killers. In a small Vermont town, three high school seniors lure a fourth into a car, ply him with liquor laced with fentanyl, and watch as he vomits and expires with his face in a mud puddle.
It's unthinkable — but, in the minds of narrators Logan, Grayson and Holly, it's the only way to save their friend Meeka, who's been the target of threats from Cole since she broke up with him. Given Cole's deep online involvement in "red-pill, Pepe the Frog, alt-right bullshit," Meeka's friends took the threats seriously enough to make her ex disappear. But is this the perfect murder or just one more illustration of the adage about no honor among thieves?
Waterbury resident Starmer is also the author of several middle-grade novels and a YA novel in which teens start spontaneously combusting. That book, Spontaneous, is the basis of a soon-to-be-released Paramount movie and exhibits the same dark humor that stands out in Meme.
At one point, a character coins the term "memesturbatory." Another sums up Cole's credentials as an online scammer: "He was fluent in both English and lies. Plus, he was from Vermont, and people naturally trust people from Vermont."
Leaning into the ambiguities of unreliable narration, Starmer tells a tale in which no one can be trusted — not even people from Vermont — everybody has an excuse, and soulless online bots just might be the only winners.
The meme element enters the story shortly after Cole leaves it. Meeka, Holly, Logan and Grayson bury him in a Thule roof box, together with four phones on which they've placed a video of all of them confessing to the crime. This clever precaution, they hope, will stop any of them from having second thoughts and going to the cops.
And it does seem pretty clever — until a week later, when a screenshot from the confession video goes viral. Before they know it, the four friends' tortured facial expressions have become a meme, with wags all over the world giving the image captions, such as "WHO FARTED?"
But how did the video escape Cole's final resting place? Who meme-ified it, and does that person intend to bring the four friends to justice or simply make them squirm?
These are the questions that obsess our three narrators as they descend into a hell that is largely of their own making. In the tradition of thrillers such as Scott Smith's A Simple Plan, the threat of being caught magnifies the criminals' character flaws until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Early on, Starmer uses first-person narration to put those flaws under a merciless microscope. Holly can win any game and think her way out of any problem — but sometimes she misses what's right in front of her. Grayson prefers to be driven by animal instincts, but his instincts don't always steer him true. And Logan, the most hapless of the three, judges others while harping on his own virtue. "Even though sometimes I slip, I'm naturally a selfless person," he assures himself while scrambling to save his own skin.
Those three strong character voices initially make Meme fun to read. As the story progresses, however, it gets harder to keep track of who's speaking. Much of the middle is devoted to an online cat-and-mouse game that may or may not actually be a wild goose chase, with technical details and lengthy misdirections bogging down the narrative.
During that long middle, Starmer takes the opportunity to meditate on meme culture, particularly on the plight of the people who unwittingly become meme fodder. At one point, Holly expresses skepticism about the idea that memes "are going to define my generation in the way that, I don't know, shopping malls and ugly sweaters defined my parents' generation." In her view,
[M]ost kids are passing time when we share these things. We don't really care. Barely any of these memes are actually funny. The majority don't even make sense. The only thing they all have in common is that they're some sort of inside joke.
The irony of a murder confession becoming a "joke" isn't lost on the reader. The question of who engineered that transformation drives the story as the action speeds up again toward the climax. But readers may be stuck on a more basic question: How much do we care what happens to these kids?
"You aren't a murderer until you murder," Logan reflects at one point. "Then that's basically all you are." Watching these characters struggle like fish on a hook can be entertaining, but it's hard to feel sold on the justice of their vigilante action — or even on their motives, which are established in a few brief flashbacks. We don't feel the characters' rage against Cole or their frustration with the authorities whose help they might have sought to deal with him. As a result, it's not easy to believe that these young people, all with so much to lose, would have resorted to murder. The book's final "reveal" adds almost as many questions as it answers.
Ultimately, Meme seems to sidestep the question of whether the cold-blooded murder of someone like Cole can ever be justified. (Two recent suspense novels that attack that question head-on, in a similar context of violence against women, are Mindy McGinnis' YA novel The Female of the Species and Tana French's The Witch Elm.) After that chilling opening scene, the horror of the act of killing recedes.
What does come through in Meme, palpably, is the terror of having one's secrets unexpectedly revealed online. While it may not make you root for its characters, Starmer's novel will definitely make you check on the security of your cloud service. Whether trying to get away with murder or not, a person can't be too careful.
"Are we evil?" Holly asked me last night as we drove away from the barn, the rocks from the dirt road clinging to the underside of my Hyundai.
"No," I said. "He was the evil one. Would you have rather it been Meeka? Or us? Or other people?"
"Of course not. And I know, I know, I know we didn't have a choice."
"I know that."
"I doubt I'll sleep for days," I said, flipping on the high beams just as something skittered into the woods in front of us. "I'm not happy about any of this."
"Are you crying?" Holly asked.
She was crying too. I could tell from the tremble in her voice. "This will always be a part of us," she said.
"But we'll get over it," I replied.