The Novel, 2.0

Who Needs a "True Nature" Anymore?
All about fiction.
Oct. 11 2006 4:58 PM

The Novel, 2.0

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Gary,

One answer might be to go all Scandinavian and take our cues from those austere Dogma filmmakers who stick to hand-held cameras and natural lighting and won't even put music in their movies unless an actor in the scene turns on a radio or tunes a flute. We could declare a new doctrine, Phone-damentalism, and purge our fiction—and perhaps our lives—of all the advanced communications technology that seems more and more like separation technology. (The girlfriend who peeked in my cell phone still won't call me.) Then, we could go back to staging those classic scenes where people gather in one room to talk or amass on one battlefield to fight.

Advertisement

But that's not how things work now. Imagine if Leo Tolstoy came back to life and tried to write a sweeping, realistic novel about the great leaders behind the war on terror. It would end up resembling a William Burroughs routine. "It's George here. Get me Dick." "Dick on the line." "Where's Condi?" "Tel Aviv." "Let's patch her in." "She's right here on my screen, next to a message from Don (more 'Rumsfeld's Rules') and a feed from a drone over western Pakistan." "Forward me those. Those rules are funny. Dick?" "Sorry. Just typing an order into my Treo." "I see that. The NSA just sent it over. 'Medium pizza, no cheese, soy pepperoni … ' " "George: It's Osama! We've got him in our sights!" "How can it be a pizza without cheese?"

The Unbinding, the online novel I wrote for Slate last spring (and revised for paper publication this January) was my little stab at taking on the world as it now presents itself: in suggestive, overlapping slivers. The text consisted of whispers in the ether (Web journals, interoffice memos, lists of library books and movie rentals assembled under the Patriot Act) and the point of view was the new omniscient one: Big Brother astride a satellite. The pieces weren't jammed together randomly but represented a sort of case file that someone had assembled on the main characters. This structure encouraged readers, I hope, to ape the FBI man in the story—to snoop through garbage looking for conspiracies, to monitor chatter, alert to plots.

This in itself was nothing seismic, since readers have always reasoned like policemen. They hypothesize upward from the evidence, intuit downward from their prejudices, and, if they're lucky, discover the truth. Popular novelists bait them with secret truths and make their millions of readers feel lucky indeed. Jesus got laid and had a kid—tell Mom! More serious novelists (Gary, don't be shy) deliver self-evident truths, making their thousands of readers feel … old. Our lives are borne ceaselessly into the past—it's sad, but I kind of felt it all along. One self-evident truth in The Unbinding (I sewed it in there; it better have stayed put) concerned the nature of privacy and selfhood. I hoped that this truth was particularly apt to our massively networked yet isolating times.

As I remember, it went like this: It's impossible to steal the souls, control the minds, or trespass on the spirits of beings who just don't have them—or seem to want them. Beings who (must we even call them people?) seem positively frantic, actually, to Bluetooth-, YouTube-, and Match.com-away every last bit of what once were their "true natures."

Because, really, who needs a true nature anymore? The things are so weighty, so stationary. A true nature is a gloomy monolith, sort of like that old black rotary phone that I had to sing "Happy Birthday" to Grandpa on.

But novelists, damn us, still need true natures—so we can give them to our protagonists. And so readers can vaguely predict how they'll behave when we trap them in "situations" that they can't IM their way out of. That's why I dream of going Scandinavian. That's why I dream of filtering my fiction until there's nothing left in it but humans. (If humans didn't exist, novelists would have to invent them.) I propose a motto for this movement: Keep things simple, even if they're not.

But why go to bed when the carnival's still whirling? Why not head into the heat and ride the rides? Just like you, I want to live, and I'd love it if our so-called profession survives (I think it surely will; it just won't pay much), but the main thing I cling to is what I was before I became a novelist: I was curious.

What a spectacle of expression surrounds me now! Everyone his own cinematographer. His own stream-of-consciousness e-mail poet. His own nightclub DJ. His own political columnist. His own biographer of his top-10 friends! (You mentioned that everyone wants to write a novel now, but I'm not so sure that's true. I think that most folks just want to publish one.) If I were Count Tolstoy, with his magnificent skull, if I were an NSA surveillance satellite, with its gigantic switching capacity, I'd suck the whole crazy fair right up inside myself, tuck it and twist it a tiny little bit, and pour forth a novel not in puny prose, not in cramped paragraphs, but in—Ultra-Verbamax!

These evil new problems can't be reasoned through, perhaps. Maybe it's time to pull a Kerouac, light up, coffee up, and just go nuts.   

Walter

Walter Kirn's most recent novels areThe UnbindingMission to America andUp in the Air. He lives in Montana and can be reached at walternkirn@gmail.com.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technocracy
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.