Feeling like the Internet

What has the advent of the internet meant for the novel? Apart, that is, from its having opened a gaping time-sucking sinkhole at the center of culture? The sweet drip-feed of sentiment and savagery ...

What has the advent of the internet meant for the novel? Apart, that is, from its having opened a gaping time-sucking sinkhole at the center of culture? The sweet drip-feed of sentiment and savagery downloading to our devices is absorbing attention that might otherwise have been poured into books, but the effects of the internet on literary life have not been purely negative. Start with the fact that the internet now accounts, via transactions on Amazon, for more than half of the current US sales of books. Add to that the array of opportunities it provides to discuss novels and to get them noticed, whether on Goodreads, the Amazon-owned social media site for readers, or literary Twitter, or any one of the many web-based publications focused on culture. The adaptation of screen technology, via the Kindle and smartphone, to the needs of internet-connected readers has also been impressive, even as the printed book continues to hold its own.

Then there are the novels one suspects would not exist if not for the internet. They include works like Matt Beaumont’s e: a novel and its sequels, in which the epistolary tradition is reborn as a long email chain; Dave Eggers’s dystopia of lost privacy, The Circle; M. T. Anderson’s wonderful updating of A Clockwork Orange for the digital age, Feed; and more than a few mass-market thrillers that take a newly volatile networked world as their premise. Even more significant than these direct registrations of the internet as form and theme, however, are the countless thousands of self-published novels of various kinds that issue from Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing apparatus, Smashwords, LuLu.com, and other purveyors of download- or print-on-demand literature. This is where works like Fifty Shades of Grey came from, vaulting from the precincts of online fan fiction into global ubiquity. Together these enterprises have lowered the up-front monetary cost of book publication and distribution to almost nothing, inaugurating an era of literary hyper-abundance whose ultimate import for the life of literature has yet to be determined.

Jarett Kobek’s I Hate the Internet is one of these self-published novels, having been put out by a microscopic LA-based publishing entity the author founded for that purpose called We Heard You Like Books. Approaching life in the age of social media analytically, it differs strikingly from the generic zombie novels, alpha billionaire romances, and vampire erotica that dominate sales among Amazon’s KDP offerings. And yet the boundary between “direct” publishing, as Amazon euphemistically calls it, and being published by others has always been blurry in the literary avant-garde, whose market is often not large enough to sustain the kind of impersonal relations we think of as underlying the feat of “getting published.” Avant-gardes are among other things groups of acquaintances, friends, and lovers who publish each other and themselves.

The age of Kindle Direct Publishing has simply confused things further, making it difficult to separate the various meanings of “independence”: from having the right to total delusion about your actual literary talents, to being free to misconstrue your dependent relationship to the giant corporation, Amazon, which saves you from exploitation (or more likely rejection) by traditional publishers, to staking out a space of genuine opposition to the reigning taste.

Kobek’s novel, whose full title is I Hate the Internet: A Useful Novel Against Men, Money, and the Filth of Instagram, enters this interesting point in literary history firmly in the last camp, trailing a blurb from Jonathan Lethem. Kobek’s previous works include Atta, brought out by the distinguished publisher of experimental writing Semiotext(e) in 2011, and a strange 2012 chapbook called If You Won’t Read, Then Why Should I Write? The former inhabits the mind of the 9/11 terrorist ringleader up to the very moment of his collision with the North Tower, refusing to moralize about his murderous delusions, while the latter is a hard-to-describe collection of fragmentary transcripts of moments from the ordinary lives of celebrities, bound with cardboard inserts detailing the trouble they have had with the law. You know, the usual avant-garde stuff.

Both of these works, especially the first, have their virtues, but the new novel is far more engaging than its predecessors. In fact, it is really good, which the reader of the novel soon learns is actually a grievous insult against it. But it is good, and even when it’s not good it’s interesting, a minor landmark in the field of contemporary literature, if only for the rare energy of its attempt to speak back to and against what is nonetheless admitted to be the condition of possibility of its own existence: the same capitalist world that gave us the internet it hates.

I Hate the Internet is often very funny, wending its way forward with the punchy rhythm of a stand-up routine, following a group of friends living in the supremely annoying San Francisco of 2013. In its humor and casually quick pacing it reads somewhat like Kurt Vonnegut, Kobek’s acknowledged model, although without the dangerously cute dorkiness that leavened his predecessor’s pitch-black assessment of our place in the universe. I Hate the Internet has no Billy Pilgrim figure, no holy innocent who throws the cruel absurdity of the world into relief, unless it is this novel’s Ellen Flitcraft, a minor character whose life is arbitrarily destroyed when lewd pictures of her are posted online. What it does have is inexhaustible comic rage at the sea of “intolerable bullshit” in which its urbanely ironic characters are forced to swim.

Kobek’s new novel is really good, which the reader soon learns is actually a grievous insult against it.

At the novel’s center is the friendship between a writer called J. Karacehennem, a last name we are told more than once is “Turkish for Black Hell,” and his droll older friend Adeline, who was once a successful indie comic book artist working under a male pseudonym. Her connection to comics gives Kobek an opening to dilate on the history of corporate exploitation of individual artists in the comics industry, who earned almost nothing from their now multi-billion-dollar intellectual properties. A presumably milder version of this exploitation is what this book avoids by being self-published. It also enables Kobek to declare the symbolic alliance of his novel with gaudy popular culture over and against the dubious refinements of more respectable literature, the kind published by the likes of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, even as he stays well within the familiar bounds of social realism (no Tralfamadorians here, just techies).

When Adeline is recorded saying some outrageous things during a visit to a class taught by Kevin Killian (an actual person, one of the great avant-garde poets of our time) and those things are posted to YouTube and go viral, the internet suddenly gets personal. Having lived in lofty contempt of its incessant chatter, Adeline can’t help herself—she opens a Twitter account. Complications ensue. In parallel to this, Karacehennem gets caught up in a controversy surrounding the gentrification of the Mission District of the city, and finally decides to move back to LA.

But as is almost always the case in avant-garde fiction, the plot is not really the point here. Some versions of the avant-garde want to draw us into the mysteries of language and narrative structure, refusing popular demand for facile meanings. Those can be very boring, I guess deliberately. That’s not what is going on in I Hate the Internet, which like a Vonnegut novel has a highly engaging, talky quality. The scaffold of plot is rather an occasion for the narrator to deliver a series of fragmentary disquisitions on various matters tied together by his titular hatred for the internet. Each hews to a recognizably contemporary left-progressive point of view, but is uttered with unusually creative vitriol.

To hate the internet is first of all to hate the hateful men who congregate there to express their hatred for women like Adeline; it is second of all to hate racism, even as public discussion of race is understood as a screen for the more basic exploitations of capitalism, which is a third thing the novel hates, especially the hatefully self-adoring kind associated with the beautiful but hateful Bay Area. Finally, there is humanity, which is revealed as essentially a “bunch of dumb assholes,” as is daily displayed (coming now full circle) on the internet. As it says on the first page: “The Internet was a wonderful invention. It was a computer network which people used to remind other people that they were awful pieces of shit.”

Inside the Cloud. Photograph by Tim Gillin / Flickr

This last is one of the techniques the novel uses frequently, and to interesting effect: the deflating definition. Kobek gets it from Vonnegut, who got it from Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, which got it from Dr. Johnson. It works really well in the context of the tech industry, where the tolerance for intolerable bullshit has always been very high indeed. Sometimes the deflating definition works by simple sarcasm, other times by using the technical jargon of scientific truth. Most consequential for our experience of I Hate the Internet is the narrator’s early redefinition of race as a misreading of a merely technical fact about human skin, which is that its color “is a visual byproduct of eumelanin’s presence in the stratum basale layer of the epidermis.” Thereafter in the novel, some 70 or 80 times, each character or group of persons is described not as belonging to one race or another but as having more or less “eumelanin in the stratum basale layer of the epidermis.” It is Kobek’s equivalent of Vonnegut’s “So it goes,” which follows each death in Slaughterhouse-Five; but whereas Vonnegut’s version rides on its disturbingly fatalistic brevity, Kobek’s point is to inject an unwieldy mouthful of scientific truth into every instance of racial identification. Although this becomes tedious and unfunny by about halfway through the novel, that is arguably the point.

Is it possible to make a good novel out of such ingredients? Apparently so, even if the very idea of the “good novel” was invented, according to this one, by the Central Intelligence Agency:

This is not a joke. This is true. This is church.

The CIA funded The Paris Review. The CIA funded the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The CIA engineered the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature.

A person would be hard pressed to find three other institutions with more influence over the development of the good novel and literary fiction.

Actually, truth is, the idea of the good novel Kobek references here was invented by Gustave Flaubert and Henry James if it was invented by anybody. And the CIA (fronted by the Congress for Cultural Freedom and other entities) funded jazz concerts, exhibitions of abstract expressionist painting, and a hundred other things during what is now called the Cultural Cold War, so picking on the good novel as the yield of the CIA’s ideological engineering seems a little questionable. The CCF was willing to support pretty much anything that could be construed as advancing the cause of “freedom,” and wasn’t overtly communist. Too, the narrator’s general account of postwar literary fiction is not exactly generous:

For more than a half a century, American writers of good novels had missed the only important story in American life. They had missed the evolving world, the world of hidden persuaders, of the developing communications landscape, of mass tourism, of the vast conformist suburbs dominated by television.

Since he doesn’t name names except, inevitably, the name Jonathan Franzen, it’s hard to know what and whom exactly he has in mind here. For instance, say what you will about John Updike, who would seem to have been one of the central perpetrators of the postwar good novel, his fiction did not avoid the vast conformist suburbs. Neither did Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road or Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, all “good novels” in Kobek’s sense, and all as deflationary in their day as he is trying to be in his. Although few would damn Thomas Pynchon or Norman Mailer or John Barth or Philip Roth or Don DeLillo with the faint praise of writing merely “good” novels, they and writers like them garnered a lot of attention and major awards in that span. Is Kobek excluding them from his charge of cultural blindness and irrelevance? And what about Vonnegut? As Slaughterhouse-Five tells you early on, it was written at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop while Vonnegut was teaching there.

But so be it. Every literary generation will have its own claim to insurgent truth, whatever the cost to an accurate view of literary history. What’s interesting to me, looking at the list of postwar literary big shots and bad boys I listed above, is how intensely male they are. And I have to say, this is a quality very much emanating from I Hate the Internet, too, despite its overtly and to all appearances sincerely feminist content.

From this perspective, I Hate the Internet looks not so much like a Vonnegut novel as a Philip Roth novel written by a young man not concussed by feminism, as Roth’s generation of he-man liberals was, but raised by and within it. One can only welcome the new generation’s ability to identify with female experience, and I for one (maybe not the best one to ask) found the character of Adeline convincing in her witty cynicism, which is her way of showing contempt for the patriarchal world without shouting it down. I feel like I’ve known a few women like her. But otherwise the rhetoric of male aggression continues unabated even as it turns on itself, meeting the challenge of the trolls with the erection of a counter-troll, a hater to hate the haters.

In other respects, however, I Hate the Internet is disarmingly savvy about its self-implication in what it critiques, pointing out how, for starters, it was created on a machine “built by slaves in China.” As we read early on:

This bad novel, which is a morality lesson about the Internet, was written on a computer. You are suffering the moral outrage of a hypocritical writer who has profited from the spoils of slavery.

Bruce Robbins has memorably analyzed the potentially disabling perception of one’s implication in a vast system of exploitative capitalism as the experience of the “sweatshop sublime,” and part of what makes I Hate the Internet a good novel and not the bad one it purports to be is how intelligently it manifests the consequences of that implication. If there remains a blind spot in its lucid deflation of our bullshit balloons it would appear to be an emotional one. Whatever else we mean by the “internet” now we mean, by way of the rise of social media, a certain shared climate of feeling, an animated and sped-up hubbub of the discourse of human interest. By turns soothing and bruising, it is the very medium of what Lauren Berlant, correcting a longstanding tendency to think of emotions as internal and private, has described instead as public feelings. They are the affective substance of political life, the very thing, even more than political ideas, to which online citizenship has become attuned and by which it is increasingly deranged. While the tenor of our online exchanges runs the gamut from sympathy to snark and beyond, one of the internet’s signature speech genres is surely the rant, the hyped-up rhetorical expression of mockingly contemptuous dismay. The novel as rant: in this way, too, I Hate the Internet is the internet it hates. icon

Featured image: Detail from Network Maps, March 7, 2012 by Netmapper / Flickr