The Novel, 2.0

The Internet, I Hope and Fear, Is Only the Beginning
All about fiction.
Oct. 13 2006 12:54 PM

The Novel, 2.0

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Walter,

I ain't fainting, pal. Look, I got into this racket the way many others did, by growing up in a family whose founding members thought that books were the world. Later I was told that books were hardly the world. Still later I was informed that the world wasn't the world (or at least wouldn't be for long). It became apparent that the sum of our knowledge would soon create a second, electronic, habitat, one so far mostly useful for slaying 11th-level orcs and dating12th-level dorks, but on its way to becoming a complex environment in which someday we may discover refuge, enlightenment, titillation, purpose—all the things I used to find exclusively between the dusty covers of my Stalin-era Russian edition of Tom Sawyer, a book so worn out from use it now exists mostly on a meta level.

I love progress, Walter. I go ape for stem cells. I can't wait to get an electronic spleen. I love works by George Saunders or the young Karen Russell that disentangle my brain from its rusty apparatus and dump it inside some haywire overmarketed future-present (Saunders) or into the depths of a dysfunctional Floridian swampland (Russell).

I love pressing a few buttons and getting a discounted book from Amazon.com in two to five business days. But I do miss the surprise of what used to be daily trips to the Strand, Dumpster-diving their cheapest bins with my fellow word freaks, hoping to find something that would allow for another week of living. I miss the emotional connection with books, a connection that may have simply been a part of being young, a connection enabled by the Martin Amises, Brett Easton Ellises, and Hanif Kureishis of my youth, the highly fallible but entirely necessary writers of those times.

Our time, as you mention, is more mutable. Change occurs not from year to year but from day to day—the fiction writer's job of remaining relevant has never been harder. And I don't think this will be true only of the present age. I think we are entering a period of unprecedented acceleration, of previously unimaginable technological gain that may be derailed only by the kind of apocalypse found in Cormac McCarthy's latest novel.

The Internet, I both fear and hope, is only the beginning.

But the emotional need to connect with a story remains. One of the folks behind the popular HBO series The Wire recently said that he sees each season as a novel, with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. The Sopranos, which may one day be acknowledged as the definitive fiction of the early 21st century, puts an emphasis on detail, setting, and psychology in a way that could resonate with a reader of, say, A Sentimental Education.

I was born in one failed empire (the U.S.S.R.), and now I live in another. I could not have predicted what would happen to either the decayed country of my birth or my struggling adopted land. What the beleaguered novel will look like in 20 years I will refrain from imagining. But something like it will exist. Something that will make a small, perhaps marginal group of people pause and consider and fixate upon the one present moment in time hovering quietly over the steam of the ice cubes in their scotch.

And then someday, in a future where citizens of the developed world may spend most of their time disembodied (or only slightly bodied), soaking in warm tanks of fantastic, life-giving, all-knowing nanotubes, a trend will re-emerge. The human-ish populace will be overtaken by an inexplicable urge for imaginative works of a certain length, printed, bound, housed between two thick illustrated covers. "Oy, Gargoogle-9114/B, my kletora is forshlempt for some 'novel,' eh?" (For some reason this future populace will be composed entirely of Canadian Jews.)

And after that, my friend, all bets are off.

I've had a swell time talking to you. In ending this conversation I feel the way I often do upon leaving my shrink. A little confused, a little vulnerable, a little hungry for chocolate-covered pretzels, and more than a little hopeful.

Gary

Gary Shteyngart is the author of the novels Absurdistanand The Russian Debutante's Handbook. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Travel & Leisure, Granta, and many other publications.