For this year’s Fall Fiction Week, Slate has invited novelists Walter Kirn and Gary Shteyngart to discuss a question that’s been on our minds: What is the role of fiction in the age of the Internet? By “Internet” we mean not just the web itself but also the notion of constant connectivity. Today, in this age of the virtual network, the concept of being “out of reach” has begun to seem quaint, and our experience of the world has become more fluid—with, perhaps, less room for solitude and concentration. So, we’ve asked our critics to address the following questions: Does the new age of connectivity have any ramifications for the novel? Has human experience been altered? Have the conventions of storytelling begun to change—and if not, should they?
Walter Kirn is the author, most recently, of The Unbinding, a serial novel published online in Slate that tried to make use of the inherent properties of the medium. Gary Shteyngart is the author, most recently, of Absurdistan, a comically surreal journey through a post-national world of fluid identities and disorienting cultural collisions. He is currently at work on a novel set in a future where language ceases to matter, except to an elite group of people.
In the age of networked everything, life moves sideways and covers lots of ground—covers it while barely touching the earth. The events of the other morning spanned several continents, brought me into contact with dozens of people, touched on themes that ranged from sex to war, and nearly cost me my identity. It was an odyssey through time and space, and it should be the stuff of a novel, but I can’t write it yet. I wouldn’t know how to set the scenes because they have no scenery. I wouldn’t know how to describe the characters because most of them never fully showed themselves (and the features they did reveal were posed and unreliable). Worse, when I go back over the morning’s dramas, I realize that most of them occurred offstage, which leads me to question whether I, or anyone, is the protagonist of his own story.
I need to be specific.
A few minutes after I woke up, I sent a text message to a girl I love who lives most of the time in Colorado (I’m in Montana, 600 miles away, and we’ve romanced each other, I’ve come to realize, primarily in the ether, over the wires), and while I was awaiting her reply, I read and answered several e-mails (most of them from New York publishing types whom I’ve never met in person), called up my mother’s machine in Minnesota (which informed me she was in Boston), listened on my XM satellite radio to a live report from Baghdad (where I think a friend of mine is fighting but won’t know for certain until he gets in touch with me, assuming that he’s still alive), refreshed my computer screen, read something that scared me, dialed a toll-free phone number (in India?) to report a PayPal phishing scam (originating in Brazil, I learned), and then drove to a coffee shop in town, where I had to wait to get a muffin while the counter girl chatted on her cell phone. Afterward, I headed to the gym, ran on the treadmill, watched more news from Baghdad, and wondered why my girlfriend still hadn’t called me. An hour later, writing this to you (someone I’ve never passed a living word with but whose last novel I reviewed—positively—in the New York Times), I still have no idea where I stand with her. She’s out there somewhere, to be sure (and I’m out here somewhere, too, I have a sense), but there’s been no connection for several days. The reason for this may be that when I saw her last she snooped in my Motorola and read a message from a woman in Portland I hardly knew but who, because of the tenor of her text “voice” and the late hour that she wrote me—2 a.m.—came off as an intimate. (Damn.)
My point being this: I’m thrown by this new world, both as a novelist and as a person. These two confusions are one confusion. They come down to the fact that I still think (and can’t help but read and write) in linear terms, but I find myself living in infinity loops. Too much happens each day, it happens all at once, and yet, in some ways, nothing happens at all. A day that’s spent processing electronic signals like a sort of lonely arctic radar station (my day, your day, a lot of ours) is hard to dramatize.
I read somewhere once that in the 1960s fiction writers were troubled by the notion that life was becoming stranger and more sensational than made-up stories could ever hope to be. Our new problem—more profound, I think—is that life no longer resembles a story. Events intersect but don’t progress. People interact but don’t make contact. Settings shift but don’t necessarily change.
Can written narratives represent this world? Can they convey what it feels like to inhabit it? The movies, of course, have given up trying. The best they can do in order to travel the hidden channels through which fate conducts itself these days is cut back and forth between shots of people on phones or show someone typing on a keyboard and then display what’s appearing on the monitor. Novelists, with their access to the invisible, ought to be positioned to do better. How, though? I have a suspicion—that’s all it is now—that the answer lies in the form’s origins. I’m thinking of epistolary novels such as Richardson’s Clarissa. That was the revolutionary mode once, when novels broke out of being mere prose “romances” and started to grapple with subjectivity. It’s also when they discovered the modern fact that we communicate in stylized bursts and through specific technologies. That’s truer than ever now. E-mails, phone calls, Web sites, videos. They’re still all letters, basically, and they’ve come to outnumber old-fashioned conversations. They are the conversation now.
Of course, one way to cope with Net America is to strip it clean of clutter in the way that Cormac McCarthy has done in his new post-apocalyptic novel, The Road: destroying all antennas, fiber-optic cables, Wi-Fi routers, and LCD screens and denuding the land of everything but dusty paths across the desert trod by laconic barefoot Nietzscheans seeking some phantom last gallon of potable water. The trouble is, this can only be done once.