The Novel, 2.0

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Oct. 11 2006 12:26 PM

The Novel, 2.0

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Dear Walter,

I'm praying for you and your special lady. Two of my best friends ended their relationships after discovering incriminating text and e-mail messages. It turned out that one friend's mate was getting it on with his yoga teacher (OMG! as the young people say). Another's life partner was doing it with someone in publishing (natch). What one learns from this is that a great deal of breakups are happening electronically. But then so are a lot of romances, yours included. And a great deal of friendships. And probably the vast majority of orgasms in the lower 48 states. 

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We are approaching a time when the Internet and ancillary services will assume the totality of human communications in the developed world. Even such time-honored practices as getting a love interest trashed at a bar and then coaxing him or her across the parking lot to a warm Volvo have been replaced by a barrage of keystrokes, misspelled two-sentence entreaties, and, by the end of the night, a parade of bent, swollen thumbs. Our imaginations are not immune, either. I've had vivid dreams that consist solely of the words, "We are sorry there has been a temporary error accessing your Yahoo account," floating in black, lifeless space before me. I shouldn't even use the personal pronoun "me," because in those dreams I am not a corporeal creature. There is nothing Gary-like about me. There is only the Yahoo! commandment, apologetic yet all-powerful, and the strange background feeling that even my dream-life has somehow been wasted.

In this fragmented, distracted, levitating new world, no wonder you and I are unsure of our place as writers of fiction. According to a recent poll, 81 percent of Americans think they have a book in them. (Of course, few of these citizens actually feel compelled to read someone else's novel.) And if you put together the daydreams, misrepresentations, regrets, jeremiads, nostalgic reminisces, and so on that an average educated American now types into her computer's Outlook program during the course of a year, you will most certainly get a 250-page volume. And that volume just might be deemed publishable. So many works of fiction I read these days are composed of bits and pieces, of various forays into this and that, of cleverly crafted narratives that function not as descriptive set pieces but as collectors and accumulators of information and desire, potent combinations of Madame Bovary and Wikipedia.

One of the first novels I read that clued me in to the world to come was Bruce Wagner's brilliant I'm Losing You. The year was 1997 and I did not even have an e-mail account.  But the parts of Wagner's novel that most intrigued me were the hilariously shallow e-mail exchanges among a bunch of marauding, oversexed Hollywood types. The rest of the book was likewise a mesmerizing torrent of data on everything from overpriced wristwatches to animal exterminators to painfully comic riffs on psychiatry and syphilis, and everything in between. I remember thinking then: Is this how we live now? A half-decade later, that's exactly how we are living.

Wagner's works remain consistently prescient and thoughtfully written. The questions may well be: Who has the patience and inclination to read these (often lengthy) works, when so many Americans are already involved in their own electronic, Wikipedian journeys? And in a society driven by selfishness and the need to stand out on the false bright stage of reality television or on the pulsating Nintendo or MySpace screen, who has the empathy to travel into another person's mind? Who wants to engage in another's misery without the cloying redemption of a talk-show host's conclusive two-minute "It's all gonna get better, child"? Who wants to learn about some distant society's pain when there's no possibility of moving the cursor onto the dancing penguin in the corner and clicking onto a brighter, newer, safer reality?  Perhaps the many enthusiastic readers of the new Cormac McCarthy book you mentioned—The Road—found themselves oddly pleased that our entire world gets swept away in his apocalyptic vision, Yahoo failure messages, double-crossing yoga instructors, syphilitic reality shows, and all. 

So where do we go from here? I'm not "Rapture-ready," as the kids in Texas say. I want to live, and I want our art form to continue. If this whole thing doesn't close up in the next 15 years as Phillip Roth and others have predicted, what innovations, adaptations, last-minute stabs at relevancy do you think are in store for the American novelist?  You've written an entire novel on the Web, so you're in a different league entirely. If you can't make me feel better about things, no one can. And if you do, I'll buy you a drink. And text you afterward.

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.