One answer might be to go all Scandinavian and take our cues from those austere Dogma filmmakers who stick to hand-held cameras and natural lighting and won’t even put music in their movies unless an actor in the scene turns on a radio or tunes a flute. We could declare a new doctrine, Phone-damentalism, and purge our fiction—and perhaps our lives—of all the advanced communications technology that seems more and more like separation technology. (The girlfriend who peeked in my cell phone still won’t call me.) Then, we could go back to staging those classic scenes where people gather in one room to talk or amass on one battlefield to fight.
But that’s not how things work now. Imagine if Leo Tolstoy came back to life and tried to write a sweeping, realistic novel about the great leaders behind the war on terror. It would end up resembling a William Burroughs routine. “It’s George here. Get me Dick.” “Dick on the line.” “Where’s Condi?” “Tel Aviv.” “Let’s patch her in.” “She’s right here on my screen, next to a message from Don (more ‘Rumsfeld’s Rules’) and a feed from a drone over western Pakistan.” “Forward me those. Those rules are funny. Dick?” “Sorry. Just typing an order into my Treo.” “I see that. The NSA just sent it over. ‘Medium pizza, no cheese, soy pepperoni … ’ ” “George: It’s Osama! We’ve got him in our sights!” “How can it be a pizza without cheese?”
The Unbinding, the online novel I wrote for Slate last spring (and revised for paper publication this January) was my little stab at taking on the world as it now presents itself: in suggestive, overlapping slivers. The text consisted of whispers in the ether (Web journals, interoffice memos, lists of library books and movie rentals assembled under the Patriot Act) and the point of view was the new omniscient one: Big Brother astride a satellite. The pieces weren’t jammed together randomly but represented a sort of case file that someone had assembled on the main characters. This structure encouraged readers, I hope, to ape the FBI man in the story—to snoop through garbage looking for conspiracies, to monitor chatter, alert to plots.
This in itself was nothing seismic, since readers have always reasoned like policemen. They hypothesize upward from the evidence, intuit downward from their prejudices, and, if they’re lucky, discover the truth. Popular novelists bait them with secret truths and make their millions of readers feel lucky indeed. Jesus got laid and had a kid—tell Mom! More serious novelists (Gary, don’t be shy) deliver self-evident truths, making their thousands of readers feel … old. Our lives are borne ceaselessly into the past—it’s sad, but I kind of felt it all along. One self-evident truth in The Unbinding (I sewed it in there; it better have stayed put) concerned the nature of privacy and selfhood. I hoped that this truth was particularly apt to our massively networked yet isolating times.
As I remember, it went like this: It’s impossible to steal the souls, control the minds, or trespass on the spirits of beings who just don’t have them—or seem to want them. Beings who (must we even call them people?) seem positively frantic, actually, to Bluetooth-, YouTube-, and Match.com-away every last bit of what once were their “true natures.”
Because, really, who needs a true nature anymore? The things are so weighty, so stationary. A true nature is a gloomy monolith, sort of like that old black rotary phone that I had to sing “Happy Birthday” to Grandpa on.
But novelists, damn us, still need true natures—so we can give them to our protagonists. And so readers can vaguely predict how they’ll behave when we trap them in “situations” that they can’t IM their way out of. That’s why I dream of going Scandinavian. That’s why I dream of filtering my fiction until there’s nothing left in it but humans. (If humans didn’t exist, novelists would have to invent them.) I propose a motto for this movement: Keep things simple, even if they’re not.
But why go to bed when the carnival’s still whirling? Why not head into the heat and ride the rides? Just like you, I want to live, and I’d love it if our so-called profession survives (I think it surely will; it just won’t pay much), but the main thing I cling to is what I was before I became a novelist: I was curious.
What a spectacle of expression surrounds me now! Everyone his own cinematographer. His own stream-of-consciousness e-mail poet. His own nightclub DJ. His own political columnist. His own biographer of his top-10 friends! (You mentioned that everyone wants to write a novel now, but I’m not so sure that’s true. I think that most folks just want to publish one.) If I were Count Tolstoy, with his magnificent skull, if I were an NSA surveillance satellite, with its gigantic switching capacity, I’d suck the whole crazy fair right up inside myself, tuck it and twist it a tiny little bit, and pour forth a novel not in puny prose, not in cramped paragraphs, but in—Ultra-Verbamax!
These evil new problems can’t be reasoned through, perhaps. Maybe it’s time to pull a Kerouac, light up, coffee up, and just go nuts.