By Luke Tredget
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Twenty-nine-year-old Anna is smart, vivacious, and in the midst of a complete existential meltdown. Sure, from the outside everything in her life seems to be going just fine: She has a decent job, a devoted BFF, and a lovely boyfriend named Pete with whom she is exactly 70% compatible, according to Kismet, the matchmaking app that everyone in Anna’s world uses to find love.
Still . . . isn’t there supposed to be more to life than this? Should she settle for a secure and predictable existence with Pete, or risk everything for a life of passion and adventure?
With true adulthood (the dreaded thirty) just weeks away, Anna secretly re-joins Kismet, and soon encounters Geoff, a dashing, forty-something journalist with whom she has a shockingly high compatibility score of 81. How can she not at least see where this goes . . . ? A funny and propulsive love story for our over-networked age, Kismet challenges us to take stock of how technology shapes our desires and what it means to “settle.”
The bus to Kilburn is a long time coming, and while waiting Anna looks back and forth between two versions of the Edgware Road, the real and the digital. The real one, all around her, is busy shifting into its evening routine. Dozens of people are gathering around her at the bus stop, pedestrians are streaming along the pavement and clotting at the zebra crossing, cars and taxis and lorries are blocked in both directions on the road, and beyond them the Odeon is filling up with couples queuing for tickets and popcorn. Anna’s attention focuses on two couples in particular, framed by the main window. One couple are tanned and chatty and their height is perfectly proportioned for the man’s arm to loop around the woman’s shoulder–she imagines the number 75 flashing above their heads. The couple behind them are of equal height and don’t seem to be communicating at all–it appears that the man might even be wearing headphones–and she pictures a 64, before a truck lurches forwards and blocks her view.
In contrast to this raucous activity, the map on her phone is entirely empty, showing nothing but the red dot pinpointing her location and the grey and beige outlines of surrounding buildings. This is Anna’s first day on Kismet, and the only match she has made was this morning in Soho Square, where she took her phone after receiving the text to say her profile was ready. The small park was deserted, but after a few minutes she saw a dark-haired man in a long coat walking around the perimeter of the square, and although she lost sight of him behind a hedge, he reappeared a moment later as a blue dot on her phone. Her excitement lasted only the time it took to press this dot with her thumb, which sadly yielded the number 54–not enough to approach someone in a bar, let alone chase them down in the street. Since then she has checked during her lunch break and while popping to the pharmacy and as she sat at her desk, but each time there was nothing, just as there is now, during the mayhem of rush hour. She wonders if something is amiss with her profile, or if she would be getting hits if she were waiting for a bus headed to east London, and then this thought is wiped by something surprising: she can hear singing.
‘Happy birthday to you.’
A young white man in a fleece and jogging bottoms is standing in front of her, with one foot off the kerb and one hand hanging onto the bus signpost. He sings at full volume, the familiar words wrapped around an altogether different, perhaps improvised melody.
‘Happy birthday,’ he continues, scanning his wild eyes around the bus stop, as if challenging the assorted commuters to meet his glare. ‘To yoouuu!’
Everyone surrounding Anna tuts and shakes their head and turns away, but she is transfixed, sensing something staged or unusual about this performance; there is something familiar about the man’s long, sad-looking face, as if maybe he is a minor celebrity, or just a friend of a friend.
‘Happy birthday, dear…’ His eyes fix on Anna at this point, and for a moment she thinks he is about to sing her name. But instead he says nothing, just stares at her helplessly, as if desperate for someone to remind him of his line, before ploughing on regardless.
‘Happy birthdayyyy! Toooooo. Youuuuuu.’
Silence. His eyes sweep along the bus stop once more, as if he has proved his point and shamed them into silence, and then he walks away. Anna watches him strut off towards Marble Arch, pulling a small suitcase behind him, and eventually she is jolted by the realisation of who he looks like: her dad. Not the middle-aged version, but how he looked as a teenager or young man, in those photos of him with his siblings, in his first car, at graduation, a handsome and hopeful twenty-something. The similarity is uncanny, and she watches after the singer until he is completely lost in the weave of other pedestrians, and almost doesn’t notice that the bus to Kilburn has arrived and is waiting with its doors open.
Anna takes her favourite seat at the front of the top deck, and a moment after the bus chugs away she opens her contacts and calls Zahra, who answers immediately.
‘How are you?’ says Anna, inserting her headphones. Zahra says she’s fine, that she just got home, and when she asks the same question Anna jumps straight to it. ‘Something weird just happened. I was at the bus stop and this guy came and started singing at me.’
‘At you?’ says Zahra, her voice distant and echoing.
‘Well, more like at the whole bus stop. But he definitely focused on me.’
‘Like, a busker?’
‘He didn’t ask for money.’
‘Was he drunk?’ says Zahra, her voice louder now.
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Well… what was he singing?’
Anna says the birthday song, and Zahra laughs and says that she doesn’t understand what was so weird.
‘It was like he was singing it to me.’
‘Right. So you think this guy knows when your birthday is, and decided to sing it two weeks early?’
‘It’s in ten days, actually. But the thing is, he kind of looked like my dad.’
‘Hmmm,’ says Zahra, her voice faint again. ‘You’re the one that’s sounding weird.’
‘Much weirder than him.’
There is a pause as Anna reflects on this, and then she sighs and says that it figures, as she certainly feels weird. As the bus passes beneath the Marylebone Flyover and onto the scruffy, low-slung end of the Edgware Road, Anna lists potential reasons for feeling strange: that she didn’t sleep well last night, that she had too much coffee to make up for the lack of sleep, that she still doesn’t know what she’s going to do for her birthday, and that she’s failing at work. She doesn’t add that joining Kismet has also jazzed her mood, but she does minimise Zahra’s face to a thumbnail on her screen and opens the map again.
‘Everyone feels like that on a Monday,’ says Zahra.
‘Of course. Everyone starts the week thinking they’re in the wrong job.’
‘I see,’ says Anna. ‘I didn’t know that.’ There is another pause as the bus passes a billboard for the new Kismet Love Test, which provides a one-off retrospective score for couples who met in the traditional way. Anna considers asking if most people wonder if they are in the wrong life as well as the wrong job, but she doesn’t want to go down that route, and instead asks Zahra why her voice keeps fading from loud to quiet.
‘You’re on speakerphone; I’m walking between the living room and kitchen. Sometimes I get home and just pace. The floorboards feel so nice underfoot!’
‘Nice? For six months’ work they should feel transcendental underfoot. Tantric, even.’
Zahra says it was worth every minute, and that they’re so pleased with the results that they’re thinking of knocking the two bedrooms together as well. While Zahra talks the bus stops and shuts down altogether beside the covered market, so the driver can swap with another man waiting on the street. A couple carrying large Argos bags walk past and, since Anna imagines everything and everyone in Kilburn being deficient in some way, she pictures a low number flashing above their heads, a 57. Then she looks at her phone and is surprised to see a blue dot so close to her red one they are almost touching. She taps the screen and the number 66 appears.
‘Fuck me,’ she says. She looks for him along the top deck of the bus, then presses her forehead to the side window. Dozens of people are walking along the pavement, but the dot on her map is static, and a little further along the road.
‘What’s going on?’
‘I need your advice,’ says Anna, angling for a view from the front window instead. ‘I joined Kismet.’
‘And I’ve hit a 66. Should I get off the bus?’
‘Relax: this is just a test. Should I get off, or what?’
There is a cold silence from Zahra’s end of the line. A bus parked ahead pulls away, revealing a shelter where a dozen or so people are gathered.
‘This is a very bad idea.’
‘Come on, we’re about to leave. Shall I get off or stay on? The number is 66. Six six.’
Zahra sighs, then repeats the number aloud a few times.
‘Do you have a visual?’
‘I can’t see shit.’
‘Then you should stay.’
‘I’m staying,’ says Anna, as the engine rumbles to life. ‘Thanks. I’ve forgotten the etiquette.’
‘I still don’t approve. And I’m going.’
‘I thought you were riding home with me?’
‘I never said that. And Keir’s just got in.’
‘But we need to discuss my birthday. I’ve found proof, you know.’
‘I’m thinking we can hire a boat?’
Her phone emits a harsh beep, the sound of a wrong answer, and the small picture of Zahra’s face disappears from her screen. The bus edges away from the kerb and Anna stares out the window, trying to get a clear look at the 66, but the light is poor and the shelter crowded–the people appear like letters printed over each other on the page. The bus accelerates, and the blue dot drifts away from her red dot, until it reaches the edge of her brightly lit circle, the fixed extent of Kismet’s reach, and vanishes into the shaded area beyond.
Anna turns around in her seat. Since she’s almost home she decides to log out of Kismet altogether, but before doing so she pinches at the screen, making her lit-up circle shrink in proportion to the washed-out and darkened streets around it. She pinches again and is surprised that the map zooms out to show an entire view of London, her fifty-metre circle now smaller than a pinprick. She pinches again and sees the UK within Europe, then Europe surrounded by Africa and the Atlantic and Asia, and finally the round Earth floating in black space. Anna smiles. It seems ridiculous to have designed such a feature, but she thinks about the amount of money and time it must have cost, and has a sudden yearning to know more about the Kismet programmer who decided, perhaps on a romantic whim, to spend their time making it this way.
Anna is at her desk, holding her phone at a tilted angle so that Ingrid, five feet to her left, can’t see the map on her screen. The circle contains her floor of the office–an expanse of almost a hundred people–a central portion of Great Marlborough Street, a slice of Oxford Street and, in fact, since the circle is actually a sphere, hundreds of co-workers on the three floors above and two below. In all this, there are no blue dots.
It is disappointing. When she last used Kismet, almost four years ago, she seemed to make at least one match every time she logged on, more often two, sometimes three. There was even one dizzying occasion, on the dance floor of a club in Hackney, when she checked her phone and the cluster of blue dots resembled a cartoon bunch of grapes. She would like to think that since then her personality has become more refined and mature, or that there are simply fewer single people, but she is nagged by a more sinister explanation: perhaps the information Kismet is compiling and sifting–the websites she visits, the playlists she creates, the items she buys, the pictures she likes, the people she befriends; in short, everything–is generating a scrambled signal, one ridden with contradictions, that will match her with deviants and fringe dwellers, reclusive creeps and sleazy older men.
‘Hmmm-mmm?’ says Ingrid. She is typing rapidly with all her fingers, while her eyes scan along lines of shorthand in a notebook propped on a tiny lectern.
‘How long…’ says Anna, and then stops. She was about to ask how long Ingrid was online before she met her boyfriend, but this is too personal a question, almost rude. Instead, she asks how long Ingrid’s boyfriend Sam is around for.
For a moment Ingrid doesn’t react at all, simply carries on typing, and it isn’t until she finishes a sentence or reaches some other break point that she turns in her chair and gives her full smiling attention to Anna. She says that Sam only has one week before he returns to the Amazon for his next film shoot, and that they are squeezing every drop out of the time they have left; last weekend they rented a farmhouse and went to the third oldest pub in the country.
‘They had a well in the pub,’ she says, beaming with North American enthusiasm for the quaint English countryside. ‘Like, full of water at the bottom. An actual well.’
Anna considers telling Ingrid that all rural pubs have wells, but Ingrid continues with a description of the house they rented, complete with heated pool; in her mind’s eye, Anna sees various pictures of Ingrid and Sam and their friends messing about in the pub and jumping into the pool, imagined precursors to the real pictures she’ll see later on Instagram or Facebook. Almost every week there is a gallery of Ingrid and her friends going mad at superclubs, festivals and warehouse parties, or else there will just be pictures of her and Sam lounging around their flat, enjoying outrageously healthy breakfasts, and often looking like they have just had or are just about to have sex. They probably got some ridiculous score, a 78 or 79.
‘Why do you ask?’
‘It’s my birthday next week,’ she says, ad-libbing, and Ingrid says she hadn’t forgotten and that sadly Sam can’t make it. Then she smiles and returns to her computer, tucking one foot beneath her other thigh, in a position that looks vaguely yogic to Anna. A second later her fingers are rattling against the keys, and her hair–a pile of hazel-brown curls–wobbles slightly as she types. Just above the collar of her white linen shirt, Anna can see the curved tip of a small tattoo that means ‘calm’ in Sanskrit. Over her shoulder, she sees the copy firing out across the page, something about Taiwan’s tallest skyscraper. Ingrid is writing a series of articles on Asian cities, sponsored by Hyundai, and her latest piece–a feature on the insanely difficult exams faced by Singaporean twelve-year-olds, complete with example questions–went viral and made it to the top of the big board, with over ten million hits.
Anna looks up at the big board–which is visible to everyone on the news floor, regardless of where they are standing or sitting–and sees that ‘Singapore Steel’ is now in fourteenth place, with 1835 readers inside the story this very second, just behind a report on the launch of the new Kismet Love Test. She looks from the board down to one of the TV screens displaying rolling news, which happens to be filled with the smiling face of Raymond Chan, Kismet CEO, at his latest press conference, presumably as he denies the accusations that the retrospective Love Test will cause unnecessary disruption to people’s lives. Finally she looks down to her own notepad and list of things to do, the most pressing of which is to come up with captions for a picture gallery of the world’s most expensive race horses. She settles down to make a start, and as she does so a message from Stuart appears on her screen, asking her to come for a chat in the Quiet Room, ‘ASAP’.
The message sets off an anxious reverberation in Anna’s stomach, like the faint beginning of a drum roll. She scans the email for hints that she might be in trouble–and her memory for something she might be in trouble for–then takes her notepad and walks across the clearing in the centre of the office. As she comes into line with the glass-fronted meeting rooms, she can make out Stuart’s crouched shoulders and the back of his balding head. Stuart doesn’t have his own office–no one does–but in recent months he has spent so much time in the Quiet Room that everyone has gradually stopped using it for impromptu catch-ups and phone calls, even when he isn’t there.
‘Stuart?’ she says, opening the glass door.
‘Anna,’ he says, without looking up from his laptop. His sky-blue shirt is exactly the same colour as all his other shirts and, as always, makes Anna feel childish in her jumper and jeans. ‘You came right away?’
‘You said ASAP,’ she says, hovering by the door.
‘Exactly: ASAP, not right away. But you’re here now. Just let me send this.’
Anna rounds the table and sits opposite Stuart as he frowns at his keyboard. She rarely sees what an ugly typist he is, using only his fat index fingers, which float around in search of each letter before hammering it much harder than necessary. On either side of his round head she can see through the glass wall the entire floor, with the big board and TV screens at the far end and Ingrid sat in the centre, next to the space where she’d normally be. She imagines herself seen from this distance, a small blonde dot in the centre of the office, and tries to think of recent submissions that caused problems; there was an incident when she confused the princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, and then a photo gallery on speedboats through the ages that was riddled with technical errors, and prompted a troll to speculate that the captions were actually ‘written by a monkey’.
‘All done,’ he says, with an emphatic final hit. Then he looks across at her and, surprisingly, for him, smiles. It is a serene, contented expression, vaguely creepy but also reassuring, since it suggests she isn’t in too much trouble. ‘So then, Anna: how’s your day looking? Got much on?’
‘Bits and bobs.’
‘Good,’ he says, still smiling. ‘I suppose you’ve seen the news?’
‘Umm. I don’t think so. What?’
His smile falters.
‘You haven’t checked your emails?’
‘No. I mean yes, I have, but maybe I missed something.’
‘Right,’ he says, sighing, and a more familiar expression crosses his face; it is the same resigned look she detects whenever he appears behind her desk and catches her adjusting a Spotify playlist or searching for cheap flights, as if a pessimistic theory has once again been proved correct. ‘If you had read your emails, you’d have seen a message from Romont, approving the Women at the Top series.’
He spins his laptop around on the table and Anna reads for herself the email from the marketing team at Romont, saying they would love to sponsor the Women at the Top series, and describing in gushing terms how excited they all are about it. It is surprising to read this from a woman that Anna had thought hated the idea during the pitch; she sat there with an askew look on her face while Paula and Stuart explained why a ten-article series on powerful women would be ideal to promote Romont’s latest range of watches, as if she was contending with a bad smell.
‘This is amazing,’ says Anna, and her response appears to amuse Stuart.
‘Don’t sound too surprised.’
‘No, I’m not. I’m… impressed. Well done. Good job.’
‘It’s Paula’s baby, really. And it was a team effort. Yourself included.’
‘Please. I barely said a word between hello and goodbye.’
‘But you brought a certain energy. Paula thought so too. And we’ve had a little chat. We think this could be good for you, if you’re ready. As lead writer.’
The atmosphere changes, as if all the air has been sucked from the room.
‘If you’re ready.’
‘But I thought Ingrid—’
‘Ingrid is tied up with the Hyundai series. And this will be exciting. Paula has had Clem pull some strings. We’ve got Sahina Bhutto lined up for the first interview. Gwyneth Paltrow for the second.’
‘Sahina Bhutto?’ says Anna. The name sounds almost too big to get her lips around.
Some concern must pass across her face, because Stuart explains in soothing tones that he’s sure she isn’t so fierce in real life, and that they have until Friday to agree on the questions, which in any case will be pegged to Romont’s brand values of power, ambition and sophistication.
‘There’ll also be more money, naturally. Just a little sweetener, four or five K.’
‘Right,’ says Anna, feeling slightly dazed. ‘Great.’
‘You don’t seem too pleased.’
‘No, I am,’ she says, stretching her smile into a full nodding grin. ‘Uh-huh.’
‘Because I need you to be up for this. Ready for this.’
There is a slight pause as he stares into her eyes, then he smiles again, the same creepy warm smile that he gave when she first sat down.
‘Great,’ he says, clapping as if to punctuate the air. ‘It’s great to have you on board. So about the launch: I just had a three-way with Paula and Romont, and we want to hang it off something newsy. Perhaps a list of the world’s most powerful women, with a little bio of each. What do you think?’
‘Sure,’ she says, still somewhat light-headed. ‘Sounds great.’
‘Excellent. Get the copy done by… what are we on? Eleven thirty? I’ll tell Romont to expect the copy for sign-off by… 5 p.m.’
‘Oh. You mean today?’
‘Of course. We’ll have the guys in Charlotte work up the design overnight, publish tomorrow morning. Clear your diary, this is big.’
‘The world’s most powerful women,’ she says, standing up. She looks through the glass wall at Ingrid and the big board and the TV screens and all her other colleagues criss-crossing on the clearing–the office appears a tangle of distractions, interruptions, eavesdroppers. She asks Stuart if it’s okay to take the pool laptop to a cafe, so she can really concentrate, and he just shrugs and shakes his head, as if he couldn’t begin to muster an opinion on such a trivial issue.
‘But one more thing,’ he says, pointing his finger at her as she goes to leave. ‘Do it by continent. You know, the most powerful women in Asia, Africa, Europe. So it’s not just a list of Americans.’
‘By continent,’ she says, nodding. ‘Also, by the way… what do we mean by power?’
He looks at her in confusion.
‘You know. Power. Money. Wealth. Influence. Just… work it out.’
‘Right,’ she says, nodding vigorously, as if everything is now clear, lest he ask her if she is ready again. ‘Power. Got it.’
‘And Anna,’ he says, making her pause with the door held open. ‘Congratulations.’
The word rings in her ears as she crosses the clearing to her desk, where she stands absently for a moment, her hands resting on the back of her chair. Then she goes to sign out the pool laptop from where it lives in the cabinet, and is informed by Jessica, office assistant, that the rules have changed and she isn’t allowed to take it off site unless it’s an ‘emergency’. Anna thinks she has a miniature battle on her hands, but at that moment Paula appears and grabs her arm.
‘I’m so proud of you,’ she says, beaming up at her. Paula is tiny–her cornrows are only level with Anna’s shoulder–but it is nevertheless overwhelming to be manhandled by her boss’s boss in front of the whole office. ‘You’re going to nail it, I just know it.’ Paula says more things like this, and Anna feels alarmed by the intimacy they imply–their only real interaction until now was at last year’s summer party, where they were placed together at the dinner table, and due to some physiological fluke Anna found herself in a charming and boisterous and flirtatious mood. But before she has a chance to say something self-deprecating and witty, or even to thank her, Paula says she has to rush off–she is forever in the process of heading somewhere else–and stomps away towards the lifts. She returns her attention to Jessica, who doesn’t raise another word of resistance concerning the laptop.
‘What the hell’s going on?’ says Ingrid, when Anna returns to her desk. While putting on her coat, she tells her about the Women at the Top series and the list she has been asked to do. Without delay Ingrid swivels her chair around to face Anna and asks who the interviews are with.
‘The first is Sahina Bhutto,’ says Anna, trying to sound casual. ‘And then Gwyneth Paltrow.’
Ingrid’s eyes open wide.
‘That’s… amazing, Anna.’ She smiles as she says this, but there is an unmistakable confused tightness around her eyes, as if the natural order of things has been messed with. Ingrid then stands to hug Anna, who maintains her stiff smile and wonders if she should feel offended by the younger woman’s reaction, and the surprise it contains. Though maybe she will have to get used to people reacting like this. From now on, whenever she tells people she’s a journalist, and they ask what sort of thing, she will mention Gwyneth Paltrow or Sahina Bhutto and it will knock their heads back slightly, as if she has suddenly expanded in front of them and they have to adjust their eyes to keep her in focus.
‘Thanks, Ing,’ she says, before taking her bag and walking across the clearing. There are yet more colleagues waiting by the lifts, and it is not until she pushes through to the bland stairwell that the smile drops from her face. By the time she is thirty, she will have interviewed Sahina Bhutto, she tells herself, as she swings on the railing from one flight to the next, the sound of her footsteps clattering around the bare cinderblock walls. In fact, no: by the time she is thirty her article on Sahina Bhutto will have been published. She tells herself that this is amazing, fantastic–uses all the same terms as Paula and Ingrid–but this does not dislodge the feeling that something is wrong, badly wrong. The reverberation in her stomach that began when she anticipated bad news is still there following the good news, only stronger now. For this is a mistake, surely, based on a misapprehension that will soon become clear to everyone. She doesn’t feel ready, not even slightly.
- "The ennui of the modern-day privileged class has rarely been captured as poignantly as in Luke Tredget's Kismet, a deeply felt reflection of the ways in which technology that was supposed to bring people closer together often only serves to isolate them (and occasionally drive them mad). And as Tredget's complicated, often frustrating, but eminently relatable protagonist shows, the truest human connection occurs when we put our phones away."—DoreeShafrir, author of Startup
- "Tredget writes a funny, timely story, with flawed and relatable characters, about how technology affects our desires and what it means to 'settle.' Though he satirizes modern dating and the idea of perfection in a relationship, he writes with an engaging warmth and lightness. Readers will surely enjoy this witty modern love story."—Booklist
- "A sharply written and heartfelt story about the connections between us, technological or otherwise. Luke Tredget has created a protagonist so lovable that you won't be able to stop reading until you know her fate."—LeslieCohen, author of This Love Story WillSelf-Destruct
- "Sharp, witty and full of tension...an intelligent and highly readable novel."—IrishTimes
- "Tredget's trenchant, entertaining debut traces how big data and social media have become an obstacle for healthy relationships...An incisive view of the uncertainties of contemporary adulthood."—Publishers Weekly
- "Kismet is compelling for more than its unflinching study of the infiltration of romance by technology and algorithms. At its heart this novel is about what endures in spite of all that; a modern love story of exceptional warmth, intelligence and humanity."—Luke Kennard, author of The Transition
- it "[a] perceptive debut novel...[a] fast-moving and witty love story for the digital age."—Shelf-Awareness
- On Sale
- Aug 7, 2018
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Little, Brown and Company