The Novel in the Age of Digital Diversion

In The End of Absence, an alternately shrewd and sentimental account of Internet-age distraction, author Michael Harris offers an autobiographical parable: once a lonely pre-tech teenager obsessed ...

In The End of Absence, an alternately shrewd and sentimental account of Internet-age distraction, author Michael Harris offers an autobiographical parable: once a lonely pre-tech teenager obsessed with fantasy novels, the now 30-something Harris finds he’s lost his ability to read more than a few pages without stopping to check his phone. Frustrated, he resolves to take a two-week hiatus from most social contact and tackle War and Peace at the rate of 100 pages a day.

The first few doses of Tolstoy are excruciating, but gradually Harris recovers a sense of pleasure in the kind of attention novel reading demands: “Moments of total absence began to take hold more often … moments where the world around me dropped away and I was properly absorbed.” For Harris, the satisfying absorption of reading a novel stands for all that our online lives deny us. Google and Facebook perpetually at hand, we’ve endangered our ability to absent ourselves, to be content in our own heads. As Harris puts it, “It’s in moments of absence, moments of solitude, that we develop a rich interior life. You cannot become properly independent, you cannot become an adult, without disengaging from networks.”

Unlike digital-age critics who accuse online interactions of sapping real-world relationships, Harris worries about their effect on our capacity to be truly alone.1 For him, novel reading is an archetype of productive solitude because it removes us from our outward lives so completely: liberatingly unconcerned with social obligations and freed of online distractions, we nurture an essential part of ourselves.

Courtesy of Jens Schott Knudsen / Flickr

Courtesy of Jens Schott Knudsen / Flickr

Those of us who love novels might find it difficult to disagree with so flattering an assessment of our favorite pastime, but Harris’s equation of novel reading is defined more by what we’re not doing when we read (checking Instagram, replying to email, worrying about how many likes our post got) than anything to do with War and Peace. Why does having Tolstoy in one’s head count as solitude, but reading a particularly witty Tumblr blog equal social distraction? If solitary absorption allows us to cultivate our inner lives, then surely the hours one can lose in online rabbit holes must count for something. Is this how we want to justify reading Tolstoy?

If anything, the vast, teeming, multilingual worlds created by novels are precursors of our digital-age diversions.

Harris’s insights into the Internet’s relentless intrusions are shrewd, but when he turns to the novel, the acuity with which he describes our new digital norms falters. Though he doesn’t say it outright, his celebration of War and Peace is due in large part to its status as a challenging work of capital-L Literature. Reading it is hard, and becoming absorbed in it is a badge of honor. It’s difficult to imagine Harris having the same reaction to a deep dive into Harlequin romances, which many find far more absorbing than Tolstoy. Harris’s chief exemplars of intelligent pre-tech reading are men like Thoreau and Milton, celebrated for their long, unbroken hours of productive contemplation. But surely the solitary labor of august men of letters has never been typical. Earning a living and caring for family intrude on absence as much as Google-equipped phones, and reading has long been as much a means of escape as an instrument of intellectual cultivation. Harris wants us to be more mindful digital users, yet by making the reading of classic literature an emblem of what we’ve lost, he renders the line between pre- and post-Internet society more clear-cut than it is. If anything, the vast, teeming, multilingual worlds created by novels are precursors of our digital-age diversions.

When novels and novel readers become objects of nostalgia, we risk overlooking how the novel form has adapted to our digital selves, and we to it. If Harris wants Tolstoy to save us from the Internet, recent novels suggest that it’s already too late. Three new works—Rick Moody’s Hotels of North America, Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers, and Louisa Hall’s Speak—use the form to ask the same questions that propel Harris: has tech changed us? And, if so, how? Unlike Harris, though, these authors are less interested in how reading novels is different from being online than in how novels themselves capture our imperfect ways of communicating with one another—digitally and otherwise. Characters turn to technology for recognition and companionable solace, only to find that their digital selves make their real ones more feel even more alienated.

In Hotels of North America, the Internet’s double-edged promise of fame updates the novel’s longstanding preoccupation with its own fictionality. Moody’s elaborate sentences and swelling page counts have famously inspired both loathing and acclaim, but Hotels, as if anticipating a readership with diminished attention spans, is disarmingly compact and approachable.2 Structured as an anthology of posts from a Tripadvisor-style travel review website, each chapter, complete with hotel name, date, and a one-through-five star rating, reveals new details about the desolate life of its author, Reginald Edward Morse, a washed-up motivational speaker trailed by a long line of failed relationships and careers and relationships. Gradually, Morse’s dispatches evolve from autobiographical reviews-cum-confessions into responses to a handful of fans and haters known only by comment-section handles like TigerBooty! and WakeAndBake, whose own remarks we never see. Questioning Morse’s identity and motivations, they provoke him first into revealing more about himself, and then into silence. A preface by the clueless director of a hotel business organization and an afterword by a fictional version of Moody bookend Morse’s unusual body of work, nesting his attempt to bare and then defend his identity within a manifestly metafictional editorial frame.

<i>Tripadvisor</i>, Courtesy of Amy Wardlaw / Flickr

Tripadvisor, Courtesy of Amy Wardlaw / Flickr

In its preoccupation with the cultural detritus of contemporary American life, Hotels recalls Moody’s early and best-known works: The Ice Storm and Purple America. But the novel is a departure from his past fiction in more than just its length. Hotels is the first of Moody’s novels to fully embrace the first-person, a perspective he avoided up until 2010’s The Four Fingers of Death, which awkwardly pokes fun at Moody’s habitual preference for the third person. According to Montese Crandall, a hack writer character who is Four Fingers’s putative author, “the first person is tiresome and confining. It is the voice of narcissists and borderline personalities.” In Hotels, however, the first person feels unpredictable and expansive, a break shot that sets off clashes between characters’, authors’, and readers’ identities. When, for example, Morse responds to his comment-section interlocutors, he registers the queasy way real and fictional identity bump up against one another online. WakeAndBake and TigerBooty!, not to mention Morse himself, are at once faceless antagonists known only by absurd online avatars, quasi-real people with Googleable traces of everyday lives, and flesh and blood individuals capable of, as Morse says in one particularly anguished moment, “going out into the yard and staring up at the night sky.” For Morse—as, perhaps, for Moody—the Internet’s ability to diminish the distance between authors and their readers is a decidedly mixed blessing.

For all its self-conscious tech-age trappings, Cohen’s novel is oddly traditional.

But Hotels’ first-person structure isn’t just a reflection of Internet-age authorship. In their fraught claims to authenticity, its narrators recall nothing so much as the epistolary novels and fictional memoirs of 18th-century fiction. There, as in Hotels, fictional editors’ assertions of truth and moral relevance call attention to just how strange fiction’s relationship to reality can be. What, in the end, is the difference between reading a confessional blog and a novel that pretends to be one? Though such questions might feel naïve, they are at the heart of want we want from virtual realities like fiction: a feeling of inhabiting others’ lives, edification, connection, consequence-free voyeurism. Hotels’ online setting and first-person perspectives update such concerns by emphasizing just how hard it can be to distinguish between them.

In his afterword, the fictional Moody declares that Morse’s writings are about “what it means to be alone.” In typical Moody fashion, however, he qualifies this statement as soon as it appears: “There’s a danger in saying that this work is about only solitude and loneliness … We do not know. Our insistence on knowing is the limit of what we know about ourselves.” Though perhaps the real Moody wants us to get caught in some feedback loop of knowing and not knowing, the first interpretation his fictional self offers seems, weirdly, right: Hotels is about what it means to be alone, and more precisely, what it means to be alone despite having access to what seems like an ideal medium for connecting with others. The first person is the perfect point of view for the Internet age, at once promising and impeding the kind of intimate, authentic understanding that Morse and his readers seek.

“If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands.”

Like Moody’s Hotels, Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers marries digital-age alienation to questions of authorship and public identity, but while Moody’s novel suggests that online communication diminishes us, Cohen makes the Internet seem like an unwieldy amplifier of tendencies we’ve always had. Book of Numbers is big, ambitious, and obvious about its themes: our narrator, a fictional version of Joshua Cohen, introduces himself with a provocation: “If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off. I’ll only talk if I’m gripped with both hands.” Combinations of slashes, backslashes, and colons demarcate short sections and chapters (invoking code? urls?), while the novel’s two final parts are titled, respectively, 0 and 1. Numbers’s middle section is comprised of a more than 250-page draft—itself a loose transcription—of the fictional Cohen’s ghostwritten autobiography of another Joshua Cohen, a Steve Jobs-style tech guru, usually referred to as Principal, who has hired Cohen mostly on the basis that the two share the same name.

For all its self-conscious tech-age trappings, however, Numbers is oddly traditional. Before and after Principal conscripts Cohen, Numbers might as well be a classical coming-of-age novel: our young male narrator-protagonist faces romantic and professional failure before being offered promising new leads in both departments. We’re invited to identify with him as straightforwardly as we do with David Copperfield or Holden Caulfield. Though certain plot points are weighted with slightly transgressive allegory—Cohen’s failure of a first novel comes out the day before 9/11; his love interests are an obsessively skinny Jewish New Yorker and a zaftig Saudi Muslim—these details never amount to more than a general sense of topicality. Indeed, Numbers is strongest when doing what novels have long done: cataloging our social flaws and throwing them back at us. This, for example, is Cohen describing a Silicon Valley bacchanal:

I waited for my hooch behind a pornstached chillionaire and his two brogrammer friends, by which I mean his coworkers at #Summerize, according to their shirts and shorts and hats.
One said, “You can’t change the scale without scaling the change.”
Another said, “Evoke transcendence.”
The chillionaire said, “Will you stop reading that neurolinguistic reinforcement pickup artist shit? This party’s got mad fucking latency to it.”

Cohen is a skilled chronicler of bullshit, and tech culture’s knack for combining large quantities of self-regard with lack of self-awareness is a perfect target. What sharpens such humor’s edge, though, is the fact that Numbers doesn’t let you forget that the chillionaires and brogrammers are the ones holding the strings to our online selves, and thus, increasingly, to us. As Numbers chronicles the ability of Principal’s company, Tetration (an Apple-Google-Big Tech behemoth), to take its users’ data and do pretty much whatever it wants with it, the novel’s fractured dialogue and eccentrically individuated characters come to seem like outcomes of the Internet itself, as generically hyperspecific as their clicks, GPS coordinates, and IP addresses. For Cohen, what we’ve lost isn’t the ability to create a sense of self, but the capacity to diminish it.

If Hotels and Numbers believe that tech’s promise of self-realizing connection masks its atomizing effects, Louisa Hall’s Speak imagines an alternative that is even more disquieting. Made up of several interwoven stories and documents by characters who include a Puritan teenager, a computer chat program, a wayward computer genius, and a fictional version of Alan Turing, Speak gradually reveals a future in which artificial intelligence has come to perfectly mirror our own. In Speak, computers undermine us not by creating robot armies or harvesting our bioelectricity, but by imparting understanding, communication, and empathy infinitely more perfect than that which other people can provide. Once offered this kind of ideal identification (through, insidiously, robots that serve as children’s toys and caretakers), humans find interaction with other humans so painful that they simply tune out a world that has itself become synthetic, made up of hermetic housing developments and plastic replicas of nature.

 Jean-Honoré Fragonard, <i>The Reader</i> (c. 1770) / Wikimedia Commons

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, The Reader (c. 1770) / Wikimedia Commons

Through Hall’s deft, grounded prose and well-wrought characterizations, none of this ever seems implausible. Instead, Speak’s premise is both fresh and discomfitingly familiar, like naming a sensation you haven’t been able to put into words. Indeed, one almost wishes Hall spent more time in the future than in the past: not all of Speak’s narrative threads are equally strong, and the novel switches between them rapidly, often breaking them off on the cusp of some dramatic revelation or event. While such moves are good at generating suspense, they’re also oddly distrustful of the reader’s willingness to stay with one character for a substantial series of pages. Acclimated to divided attention, perhaps it’s not just Tolstoy we find hard, but any sustained engagement with a single voice.

Hall’s premise is both fresh and discomfitingly familiar, like naming a sensation you haven’t been able to put into words.

Still, the acuity of Speak’s account of misunderstanding makes this fractured first-person narration an ultimately revelatory choice, uniquely suited to reading and writing about life under tech. Each speaker not only charts failed attempts at communication—both in person and online—but also writes or records as if seeking an ideal interlocutor. When Stephen R. Chinn, the computer genius, composes his dispatches from the rec room at the Texas State Correctional Institution, he imagines a reader who will both vindicate and sympathize with him: “We’re all staring at our screens, stuck here, hoping somehow to break free. Wishing for more than we’ve been given. My cursor blinks, blinks, blinks. A wall that appears and disappears … Do not stop talking, it reminds me. Do not stop speaking. You can never come to an end.” Whether they speak to themselves, to a distant beloved, or to no one in particular, the novel’s narrators, like Hotels’s Morse and Numbers’s Principal, imagine that telling their stories will allow them to both escape their embodied lives and locate the meaning in them. In Speak, though, the reader herself is implicated in such projects’ inexorable failure.

Witnessing these many different narratives feels like looking out from inside the Internet. We recognize the connections that the characters desperately want but can’t find, just as we see the individual stories for what they are: searching testimonies whose larger, collective significance—and the recompense it would bring—is forever beyond each isolated speaker’s reach. That we see these connections gives us a sense of power and, perhaps, satisfaction, but changes nothing for the characters. By placing the reader in a position of steadily increasing omniscience, and its narrators in states of blinkered isolation, Speak makes tech’s promise of networked connection look like the unwitting means of our own estrangement: what its characters want and lack is not the ability to articulate and broadcast themselves, but the presence of anyone who can really hear them.

Novels may be a means of escape, a way to disconnect. But, much like the Internet, they are also good at muddying distinctions between solitude and companionship, detachment and connection, reality and fiction. Literary theorist Catherine Gallagher has recently speculated that we are drawn to fictional characters not because we fool ourselves into believing that they’re real people, but because they combine the illusion of depth with perfect knowability.3 In other words, they provide us what we may wish we could have with real people, but without any of the messiness such total insight would necessarily entail. In Hotels, Numbers, and Speak, this dynamic has a twist: while their characters provide us with the satisfying illusion of knowability, the novels show them grappling with the ways digital life has made fictionality a kind of permanent state. Characters here are perpetually understood by others both too well and never well enough. Rather than just seeking retreats from connection, as Harris suggests, we might also look to novels for the history of the strange state the Internet finds us in, compelled to report, author, and update ourselves just to feel, in some weird way, real. icon

  1. See, for example, Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us (Norton, 2014); and Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2012).
  2. In 1999 the New Yorker named Moody one of “20 Writers for the 21st Century.” More recently, Christine Smallwood declared him his generation’s most “overrated” author. (“The Blank Verses,” The Nation, September 22, 2005.)
  3. Catherine Gallagher, “The Rise of Fictionality,” in The Novel, vol. 1, edited by Franco Moretti (Princeton University Press, 2006), p. 357.
Featured image: Courtesy of Jens Schott Knudsen / Flickr