Book Blitz

Monkeys, Ill-Groomed Novelists, and the Golden Future of Fiction


Joyce called history a nightmare that he was trying to escape—to which I can only answer: Mission accomplished, James. For you, Gary (so prematurely mournful in the lovely, traditional Russian manner), I gather that the problem is the future. It’s a nightmare that you’re trying to forestall.

And I share your nostalgia in some ways, especially for those bygone evenings when word-drunk young folks huddled in smoky dorm rooms and met on dusky New York City street corners to enthuse about their favorite novels and compare themselves with their protagonists. I’m confident that this naive, ecstatic mood still exists in certain quarters (some basement-level independent coffee shop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, perhaps) but one would never know it from roaming the Web, where the book-loving young folks remind me of the mob in Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery.” As I learned while mucking around with The Unbinding—and as I learned again this week when I dipped into the e-mails (see the Fray) provoked by our cozy online chat—the Net is indeed a global village. A repressed, Puritanical, seething New England village whose masked inhabitants stand around with stones waiting to pummel the proud and the pretentious. Because we literary types tend to exhibit both these hated traits, particularly when we’re just starting out, the Web may prove a tough town to grow up in.

But if we can manage to keep our heads down, it also offers opportunities, formal and otherwise, some of which I caught faint glimpses of while writing a novel here on Slate (and taking blows to the jaw from readers). I’ll run through my points quickly, in outline form, since space is tight, our dialogue is ending, and North Korea now has the bomb.

Web links. They can enrich a Net-age narrative if they’re deployed thematically and musically, as symbolic narratives in themselves, and aren’t merely used as footnotes or illustrations. I’ll show how this might be done with a sentence from Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a story about the marriage of a doomed writer: “She shot very well this good, this rich bitch, this kindly caretaker and destroyer of his talent.” Imagine that Papa had published the tale online and had hyperlinked the words “bitch,” “caretaker,” and “destroyer” so that they linked, in order, to: an encyclopedia essay on the Muses; a recipe for the perfect martini; an obituary of F. Scott Fitzgerald. There: a small, impressionistic fable that grows from and comments on, in all sorts of ways, the underlying sentence—and transforms the whole story with three swift mouse clicks.

Feedback. Because The Unbinding appeared in serial form and was written as it went, I was able to contact readers who’d e-mailed me and solicit ideas from them about where the story should go. This created a sort of floating workshop around the as-yet-unfinished book, a circle of critics and collaborators whose suggestions invisibly influenced its course. I enlisted a few of the more discerning readers, including short-story writer Amy Hempel, to compose letters to the main character in the guise of people who’d known him once, had stumbled upon his online journal (a major element of the novel), and wanted to reminisce about old times or berate him for old offenses. I let these helpers write in their own voices and imagine for themselves the natures of their past dealing with the main character. They’d grown familiar enough with him by then, and with the thrust of the story, to make the vignettes plausible and relevant.

Timing. A Web novel, unlike a paper novel, doesn’t have to wait a year—or longer—to be proofread, printed, bound, marketed, and distributed. It can be written and read, that is, in the same political and cultural moment. In The Unbinding, for example, the main character went to a movie, in the story, on the same Friday that the film opened in real life. He gave a review of it on the same Monday that people all over the country were discussing it around the water cooler. Only online would such a trick be possible, and though it’s trick that could easily be played too often, it’s a neat one to have in your bag. Now, a novel needn’t be a time capsule buried one year and unearthed the next.

Multimedia. The Unbinding, in theory, might have included music, movies, graphics, and all sorts of other buzzing, blinking stuff that novelists aren’t accustomed to producing. That’s why I didn’t bother. But someone else, with a greater range of talents (and a bigger budget) might well have bothered, and to good effect—as long as the unconventional material served the story, not just itself. Why, with the resources of the Web at hand, need novels be purely verbal anymore? Or movies purely visual?

Why shouldn’t some new hybrid form be possible, moving from words to images and back and, at intervals, bursting forth in song? It can be done now, and hence it will be done. Put a broadband-connected computer in a room with a thousand monkeys—or a thousand ill-groomed, intoxicated novelists who merely look and act like monkeys—and who knows what can happen?

I think hear you moaning, Gary. I think I hear you fainting to the floor of some dim café in Greenwich Village. Come back, Turgenev, you’re crying. Console me, Gogol!

I think it’s going be OK, though. Sure, there will be a difficult few decades of confusion and humiliation as we master the new switchboard, and yes, we’ll be stoned to a bloody pulp occasionally, but I see a rainbow shining in the distance, and at its far end I see a golden novel. It doesn’t look like the novels of today, perhaps, but it sure will be interesting to read—once we find an outlet to plug it into.