The perfect book for readers struggling to stop doomscrolling on their smartphones, Justin Taylor’s apocalyptic Reboot pulls off a feat few novels of our online present manage: reading it actually feels like tapping into the internet’s best celeb gossip, fiercest fandom outrages, and wildest conspiratorial rabbit holes.

That’s not to say that Taylor—author of two story collections, the novel The Gospel of Anarchy, and the memoir Riding with the Ghost—has abandoned the literary. For all its precise attention to social media posters and “explainer” pieces from barely paid Brooklyn culture critics, Reboot wrestles with rather than indulges in what we read and write online.

“We create and imbibe so much text every day, every week, all of us reading and writing novels’ worth of text,” says a blond, bearded, and bespectacled Taylor over Zoom from his home office in Portland, Ore. “And most of it, frankly, is degraded in form. It’s dashed off. We’re not really reading it when we read it—we’re not even really reading it when we’re writing it.”

Sharp elbowed but bighearted, Reboot illuminates the lives—and, often, lies—behind the online facades, surveying the worlds of social media and celebrity much like Dickens surveyed London. Taylor’s protagonist, onetime teen actor and heartthrob David Crader, has a narrative voice that reads like a dishy tell-all memoir with the incisive interiority of literary fiction. At the fringes of the text but shaping Crader’s life are those online voices and their endless posts—randos tending toward snark and a jaded savviness, often purporting to wield insider knowledge, at times intimating possible violence in response to differences of opinion about popular culture.

Taylor employs these voices as both subject and tool. “I think a lot of what social media does is reproduce the conditions of celebrity for the masses, but as a delusion,” he says. “It demands a kind of constant performance, but at the same time at least the illusion of authenticity. So, you’re always wearing the mask, but you’re also always confessing. There’s something schizoid and exhausting at the root of it. To use the system at all is to behave as though you were at the head of the class or on the PA or on the stage.”

The novel centers on Crader, best known for the not-quite-a-sensation ’00s teen drama Rev Beach, which blended Buffy and The O.C. but sputtered out after two and a half seasons. When Rev Beach becomes a pandemic-era streaming phenomenon, Crader, now a divorced dad and bar owner in Portland who makes occasional appearances at fan conventions, gets wrapped up in trying to talk the far-flung original cast into giving the show a belated second shot—all while attempting to generate the online heat that would make a reboot possible.

Not that this will be easy. Natural disasters (wildfires, floods) threaten every city Crader visits, and then there’s the costars themselves. One’s an impossibly rich ex-lover of Crader’s in L.A. who owns the IP and aspires to be its auteur. One’s an indie-film darling in New York who might find a reboot beneath him. And what to do with a third, now a conspiratorial Florida political candidate who’s taken an far-right swing? Each, somewhat savvier than Crader, uses their online presence and behind-the-scenes scheming to attempt to shift the winds of online discourse for personal benefit.

“Celebrities are really interesting people to write about in this context,” Taylor says. “On the one hand, they’re better equipped to deal with this social media performance than other people because they have had the real experience of mass visibility. At the same time, they’re also still just people.”

Taylor, of course, has long been fascinated by people in their infinite variety. A contributing editor at the Washington Post’s “Book World” and director of the Sewanee School of Letters in Tennessee, he grew up on the suburban edge of Miami, in what he calls “the sixth borough of New York, one of the largest Jewish communities in the country, with a huge pan-Hispanic population and diverse public schools.” After graduating from the University of Florida and spending time on the Gulf Coast, he remains fascinated, like his friend Lauren Groff, by the state’s size and mix of cultures, including how “if you go a little bit north, it starts getting more southern in this weird way.”

Reboot’s online pulse will draw attention, but the novel is also unusually smart about the inner lives of actors, acknowledging the privilege and comfort in which Crader is cocooned but exploring, as Taylor puts it, “how his life has been defined and boxed in by these massive impersonal forces that he has experienced in a deeply personal way. There’s a lot of things he doesn’t know about how the world works. He’s not a great navigator of his own life. But he has a fluency—he knows things through deep experience, due to a lifetime of existing in certain spaces and in certain modes that most other people just don’t know.”

Taylor made himself a student of the teen-star memoir, reading titles by the likes of Corey Feldman, Jodie Sweetin, and Dustin Diamond. Diamond’s scabrous 2009 Behind the Bell proved inspiring. “I don’t know that there’s five consecutive words of truth in the entire thing, but it’s almost like reading Nabokov or something,” Taylor says. “You learn so much about him through what he would like you to believe happened that you can sense the reality behind the absolute slanderous madness and bile.”

As Reboot reveals itself to be not just a novel but a fictional character’s memoir, Crader, too, is revealed through what he asks us to believe about himself. The effect is dizzying and surprising. Even as the novel plumbs Crader’s relationships with pain, precision, and heart, Reboot cues readers to question why the narrator would elect to share any particular scene with them in the first place.

Crader’s public and professional life is a memorable what-if of millennial pop culture. Reboot mentions a host of projects that stud the résumés of Crader’s Rev Beach alums, many playful but plausible: Whit Stillman’s movie of Ben Lerner’s 10:04; a Broadway musical adapting the David Cronenberg film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. Rev Beach itself is particularly convincing—its teen-soap origins, behind-the-scenes troubles, and thwarted narrative ambitions—and a scene of Crader brainstorming reboot story possibilities with a costar and a jaded superfan is a highlight. Just like the fans online, he has a vision of what the show should be, and just like them, he’s bound to be disappointed.

In that, Reboot hits on the dilemma facing the creators of fan-beloved-IP-based content. Any reboot, especially for a franchise that has languished for decades, will likely disappoint—or even outrage—those diehards who have arrived at visions of their own.

Though brisk and compact, Reboot digs into all of this and more, as Crader is dogged by increasingly outraged, possibly violent online posters and the disasters of climate change.

“I did not go into this expecting it to be a climate change story,” Taylor says. But, as he wrote, he endured the “traumatizing” 2020 wildfires from his home in Portland, and borough-flooding storms like the one Crader experiences in New York City have become semiannual occurrences. “Everywhere he goes, some kind of climate collapse or degradation or aberration is disrupting his progress. And those things escalate, but he goes forward. And I guess that feels true to my experience of what climate collapse feels like these days. It’s not something David wants to pay attention to until he absolutely has to. And then he deals with it in the kind of most pragmatic way possible: ‘What does this mean to me right now?’ ”

Taylor’s a little apologetic, even as he says this. “That’s how most of us are dealing with it. And that’s not meant as a critique of most of us!” He throws up his hands, a gesture of empathy with everyone else who’s currently alive and overwhelmed by the continual crises of our age: “What do you want me to do?”