Astroturf by Matthew Sperling

Astroturf is a wicked, modern novel about sock puppet accounts, steroids, and using identities. Ned is a web developer who broke up with his girlfriend a few months ago and lives in a tiny bedsit in London. Naturally skinny, his world is changed by his trainer’s suggestion that he try using steroids to bulk up a bit. Suddenly, Ned feels more energised and like he’s found a secret to revitalising his life. He becomes obsessed with an online forum for steroid users, hashing out a plan that may bring him immense success, but that requires him to delve into the world of online accounts, pharmaceutical suppliers, and fake identities.

Sperling does a clever job of making a funny novel about sock puppet accounts, something that in the modern world can do a lot of damage to real people online in very serious ways, but in the novel they are defanged by using only the steroid forum world rather than a larger political and social online sphere. It is clear that many of the characters are meant to have questionable views, but the novel looks at how Ned uses and becomes involved in these fake identities in an immoral way that doesn’t need to feature offensive views for shock value. Indeed, it is a book that doesn’t rely on shock tactics, though it clearly could have, but instead creates a kind of concise mundanity to Ned’s progression. Ideas of masculinity are unsurprisingly explored and it is interesting to see how much of Ned’s accounts’ personas are built with comedy masculine traits.

This short novel is a book to read in one sitting if possible, telling a complete tale without a huge number of twists and turns that satirises internet culture and how men interact with it. You could imagine it as a dark comedy sitcom, with a slacker-type main character who finds a cheat code for getting somewhere, but it turns out that cheat code isn’t the steroids themselves but the online community.