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Screen Play

Fiction about the internet fumbles toward eloquence

Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

In his 2005 essay collection, A Man Without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut offered this proposition: “novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.” Vonnegut's remark rings true but founders without some elaboration. Anything is potentially technology—from a spoon to an atomic reactor—so what did the irascible old novelist mean? Likely, Vonnegut was talking about advanced technology. A former General Electric employee, he also wrote in the shadow of Dresden and under the apocalyptic prospect of mutually assured destruction. The most advanced technology of the age threatened nothing less than an end to the world, so naturally he had to write about it, as he did in Cat’s Cradle. Anything less would be an abdication of his responsibilities as a writer.

If any one of our recent technological creations bears the same sense of existential import, it is the Internet. Yet to write fiction about “the Internet” is just a shade less strange than writing about “the telephone.” Each of us lives a distinctive digital life, one increasingly intertwined with the analog world, but say “the Internet” and we’re supposed to nod in our heads in recognition, even though it can mean something entirely different for each one of us. Gone is the unifying myth of, say, the atom bomb.

For that reason, any writing about “the Internet” risks falling into the trap of Internet-centrism—a formulation that treats the online world both as a monolithic entity and something with essential qualities, even desires. Still, the term remains a useful and necessary shorthand for a set of digital technologies that most of us approach with more imaginative fancy than technical understanding. If “the Internet” means something different to each of us, and novelists are in the business of explaining human impulse, the next question may be: How should novelists reflect that in their art? How will they handle the paradox of simultaneous intimacy and distance that many find online? How can digital communication—antic and fragmented as it is—be represented in fiction?

Two new novels take on one incarnation of the Internet: the Internet as pathology, as both addiction and an outgrowth of their protagonists' frazzled psyches. Neither novel succeeds in exploring or critiquing digital life with much authority, but these failures prove to be useful—not least because they lay bare the difficulties of treating the Internet as an intrinsic part of daily life. They also show that while social media underlines how life and identity can be both artificial and performative, finding a way to fictionalize these behaviors is another matter. For the Internet in fiction, these are yet early days. We seem to know more about what can't be done—Anna Karenina would have ended much differently had she had a smartphone—than what can.

Note to Self, the debut novel by musician Alina Simone, is the story of Anna Krestler, a 37-year-old Brooklynite, recently laid off from her job as a clerk at a white-shoe law firm. Soft in all the wrong places, Anna is lapsing into lethargy and slackerdom, only intermittently perked up by Leslie, her best friend who has it all together, save some troubles conceiving her second child. Anna lives with Brie, an early-twenties striver who is rocketing up the internship ladder (there's prestige in this sort of thing) and whiling away nights on kickball teams and in unfamiliar beds.

Anna, who dropped out of a Columbia grad program in Slavic studies, has no idea what to do with herself. She entertains hectoring calls from her mother and ogles the patrons in a Gowanus coffee shop. Mostly, she spends her time trawling Gawker, New York magazine, Flavorpill, etc., and obsessively checking Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever else pings her with an alert. “The Internet had draped itself, kudzu-like, over her brain,” Simone writes, and there's little Anna can do: she's addicted.

Salvation comes in a Craiglist posting. There Anna discovers Taj, a withholding, selfish, but ultimately charming indie filmmaker. She's eventually admitted to Taj's crew (her initiation involves using Chat Roulette, that bygone purveyor of tumescent male organs). The nature of Taj's film, a seat-of-the-pants production involving an eccentric group of helpers, remains a mystery to Anna, though alert readers may see an iceberg looming on the horizon, with Anna heading right for it. In the meantime, Anna falls deeper for Taj and his philosophy that simply recording life can turn it into art.

Anna is searching for something “real,” a word she invokes as an amulet. She wants to enjoy life “unironically,” like her roommate. (Although that roommate’s kickball team seems, at least to this reader, to represent a pretty facile irony.) Taj's Craigslist ad caught her eye for its subject line: “ARE YOU A REAL PERSON?” When traveling with Taj's film crew through a derelict New Jersey town, Anna thinks to herself, “What an unspeakably real and poignant place.” Simone is setting up some interesting pins to knock down: life and art as a performance, the quest for authenticity and the ineffable “real,” the question of whether the Internet is an extension of ourselves, a refuge for lonely times, or something else entirely.

But Simone never takes these ideas, particularly that of the “real,” far enough. It's not clear, for example, if Anna's comment about gritty New Jersey is supposed to reflect her own thoughtlessness—she is, after all, indulging in ruin porn and a kind of poverty tourism (the first day of the film shoot takes place in a housing project). This is supposed to represent a possible counterpoint to Anna's Brooklyn life, which is bourgeois, hip, and digitally connected, but utterly moribund. Anna name-drops a range of websites to indicate the depths of her Internet habit and occasionally ruminates on whether she can make meaning, or even art, out of it. But it's difficult to buy into the notion that Anna is “addicted” to the Internet or that there is some digital barrier between Anna and the authentic, artistic life she would rather be living.

Instead, the Internet is just a screen on which Anna can project her anxieties. It's a convenient scapegoat for her problems—unemployment, being single, a lack of drive, an incipient body dysmorphia, all part of the natural, albeit no less unfortunate, array of maladies for generations X, Y, and Millennial. The actual experience of being online, of losing track of time and one's self in the endless tides of information and updates, is discussed only in summary.

Simone may be attempting to satirize Anna's own aspirations—to say that her quest for something real is a form of naïveté. The book is replete with signifiers of hipsterdom—coffee shops, magazines, clothing brands, and the like are numerously, and specifically, enumerated. But the parody is a bit on the nose; her farcical depiction of an L.A. art party is too close to what these parties are actually like. (Joseph Conrad summed this problem up with a simple proverb: “truth can be more cruel than caricature.”) If this is satire, then, it's played too safe. Anna is self-effacing and prickly, but she's too earnest, and a little too pitiable, to be the vehicle for cultural critique.

And despite her budding relationship with Taj, Internet addiction—“the meme of our generation,” as Taj puts it, acidly—returns as a major stumbling block. That, at least, seems tangible to her, if an impediment to finding what's “real.” A trip, sans iPhone and laptop, to SilverLake is supposed to offer some possibility for a breakthrough. She's disconnected from the Internet and cozied up to Taj; now their relationship can flower, along with her own artistry. Of course, SilverLake is just like the Brooklyn she left. The artists they meet are snobby, Taj is more duplicitous than he seemed, and a break from the Internet is hardly a relief. That kind of predictability leaves the reader unimpressed by Anna's epiphanies, rote and textureless as they are.

Travis Nichols's The More You Ignore Me makes use of what may be the Internet's ideal form: the rant. The entire book is structured as a post in the comment section of a culinary blog. The post is written by an anonymous 42-year-old man, who begins by recounting his obsession with  the wedding blog of Nico Novtalis and Charli Vistons. The intruder is convinced that the best man, Chris, plans to cuckold the groom and that the bride bears an uncanny resemblance to a woman he refers to as My First Love (MFL)—she might even be that woman. He begins posting incessantly, dodging the wrath of Chris, who is also the blog's moderator, by juggling screen names. He concocts bizarre scenarios about Chris's death and how Chris will ravish Charli. He tries to warn the couple about what awaits them, but when Charli sends him a pleading e-mail asking him to cease his intervention, he takes that as a sign of her imprisonment.

Though filtered through an of-the-moment medium, the novel is actually participating in an old literary tradition: the ramblings of a semi-sane narrator. Most such literary rants are told in one of two styles. Either we witness a protagonist losing his mind, even as he thinks he remains sane (e.g., Nikolai Gogol's “Diary of a Madman”); or the character is already mad, but there's a chance that his conspiratorial imaginings are somehow true (e.g., Edgar Allan Poe's “Tell-Tale Heart” and Charlotte Perkin Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper”). The More You Ignore Me follows a third path: The narrator is disturbed, and it's never clear, nor usefully ambiguous, how much truth there might be in his fears.

What's more, the book takes an odd turn midway through. As soon as one might begin to think that our narrator is onto something, the story shifts away from the wedding blog-scape. (The book doesn’t leave its structural premise—we're still in a culinary blog’s comment section, which became the narrator’s digital refuge after he was banned from the wedding blog). The rest of the book is an extended trip through his youth, when he knew MFL. This second story casts the narrator as a voyeur observing a love triangle between MFL and two young men. The truth is long telegraphed, if never confirmed: the narrator is probably one of the men pursuing MFL.

The More You Ignore Me is fundamentally disappointing because of this shift into the past, and because it never fulfills the promise of its setup—what happened to the wedding party? We never learn. Did it ever really matter? It seems as if the first half of the book, and its wedding-blog conceit, were simply setup for this second-half reminiscence. The book would have been more successful had Nichols found a way to entwine the two stories, perhaps to make more vivid the ways that his narrator's voyeuristic imaginings have found new life in the Internet age.

The More You Ignore Me is revealing as a particular kind of case study. One might sometimes wonder if one of the outraged-beyond-all-reason commenters on a blog or news article has some interior logic, perhaps even some special knowledge. More likely, every crazed rant is tragic because it reflects a deep disjunction with its readers and, at worst, an underlying insanity. The Internet, then, is a perfect broadcast medium for Nichols's hero, but it solves nothing for him; it only leaves him more alone, alienated in his madness.

The nameless narrator brings to mind a description of a man in Joshua Cohen's “Sent,” a strange and extraordinary story about Internet porn published in Four New Messages: he is “a forgettable pixel, the whim of a bawdy baud.” Digital life leaves Cohen's character—just as it does those of Nichols and Simone's books—feeling small. The pornographer of “Sent” produces a particularly colorful and vulgar data trail, but it's only a drop in the informational tides. (Anna Krestler, too, laments how few hits her name produces on Google.) The Internet may not have a nature, but it is massive and it is supremely indifferent. It cares not for us, mere pixels (bits, more accurately). The novelist's task is not to expect something from the Internet, nor to simply invoke it as a potent technological symbol of a character's pathology. Like any technology, it has to be shaped for the purposes of literature. It has to, in some sense, be taken for granted, to be made to submit to the larger story, just as a writer would with a telephone or an atom bomb. Anything more is to make a fetish of “the Internet,” to return scare quotes to it, and to deny a base fact: that digital life is meaningful but also rather quotidian. It's but another part of the way we live now; time to write like it.