KIDS RUN THE SHOW,byDelphine de Vigan. Translated by Alison Anderson.
“You have to see it to believe it,” a police officer says of a mom vlogger’s YouTube channel in Delphine de Vigan’s agenda-setting literary thriller, which shines a light on the murky ethics of putting your family on social media. “Seriously, do people even know this exists?” It’s a pertinent question, because unless you have children, and carefully monitor their digital consumption, this billion-dollar industry could easily fly under your radar.
Tracing a line from reality TV to influencer culture and a decade into the future, de Vigan, a prizewinning French author known for auto-fictional psychological dramas such as “Nothing Holds Back the Night” and “Based on a True Story,” makes no bones about her stance.
A somewhat didactic early chapter describes the explosive (and real-life) arrival in 2001 of the French reality show “Loft Story,” in which everyday contestants spend 70 days trapped in a surveilled house together before being released back into reality, fresh prey for their newfound fans. In de Vigan’s novel, both Clara Roussel and Mélanie Claux were schoolgirls when they watched its finale. “They’d believed that Big Brother would be incarnated in an outside power, authoritarian and totalitarian,” de Vigan writes of Clara’s family. “But Big Brother hadn’t needed to use force. Big Brother had been welcomed with open arms and a heart starving for likes, and everyone had agreed to become their own torturer.”
The novel intertwines the third-person perspectives of these two millennial women who have responded to the digital revolution in very different ways: Mélanie Claux Diore is a failed reality-show contestant who now runs her children’s lucrative YouTube channel, Happy Recess; Clara is a meticulous evidence custodian in the Paris Crime Squad. Their paths cross when Mélanie’s daughter, Kimmy, disappears outside her home in November 2019.
Clara finds herself at the heart of a missing child case, and de Vigan captures the desperate tension of a police investigation with a young life at stake. Eventually, the kidnapper’s demands reveal motives that are less straightforward than anticipated.
The novel’s pace and sense of journalistic realism are enhanced by de Vigan’s spare, direct prose, elegantly translated by Alison Anderson, and the transcripts of police interviews and other documents interspersed throughout the narrative.
Yet what really elevates this page-turner are its political urgency and psychological depth. De Vigan digs into both protagonists’ histories, unpacking the origins of their opposing attitudes toward social media. Mélanie’s bottomless need for validation stems from her mother’s favoritism of Mélanie’s sister; her self-delusion that confuses fans with friends is disturbingly unwavering. By contrast, Clara is the child of anti-surveillance activists. It is she who realizes that the clues must lie in the reams of content broadcasting the Diore children’s daily lives to their five million YouTube subscribers and Instagram followers.
Child labor laws haven’t caught up yet. In 2020, France was the first country to give child YouTubers the same legal protection as child actors, requiring parents and other profit-making content sharers to get government authorization before recording minors under 16. (The United States began to address the loophole only this year, with Illinois leading the way in a bill guaranteeing children a cut of the profits made off their accounts.) Other lawmakers should perhaps be sent copies of this novel, if they need persuading of the corrosive impact of children being forced into the limelight, exposed to mocking, envious and malign eyes, working unregulated hours and promoting consumer gratification through brand partnerships and “unboxing.”
But de Vigan knows legislation can’t cure all, and she travels into the future to demonstrate its limitations. In 2031, her characters are still grappling with the repercussions of their experiences: Mélanie’s son, Sammy, “is showing the most characteristic signs of what is known as the Truman Show delusion, first observed in Los Angeles in the early ’00s.”
The effects of child stardom are well documented, and it’s hard to ignore the echoes of Britney Spears’s recent memoir, which chronicles the way her family exploited and controlled her over decades while she financially supported them. Neither Mélanie nor Spears’s parents ever seemed to think their children were worth much, whatever they achieved.
If de Vigan’s chilling tale is as prescient as it seems, so-called kidfluencers are just one of the psychological ticking time bombs planted by the dissolution of privacy in our culture of unfiltered digital exposure.
KIDS RUN THE SHOW | By Delphine de Vigan | Translated by Alison Anderson | Europa | 297 pp. | $26