S.D. Chrostowska, Marie Calloway, and the New Media Novel

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1. The Email-Epistolary Novel

In a 2010 broadside subtitled "Where are the iPhone Addicts and Facebook ‘Stalkers’ in Contemporary Fiction?" Joanne McNeil critiqued the email correspondence in Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story (2010) as having been "presented no differently than the epistolary passages in nineteenth-century literature." McNeil argued that the accurate portrayal of online communication today would resemble Burroughs and Gysin's cut-up technique.

If McNeil’s desired stalkers and addicts are still rarities in contemporary literature, the last several years have been bizarrely good for the email-epistolary novel. Besides Super Sad True Love Story (2010), S.D. Chrotowska's Permission (2013), Lynn Coady's The Antagonist (2011), Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette (2012) and Kimberly McCreight's Reconstructing Amelia (2013) are all either primarily composed of emails or structurally rely on the form. The traditional epistolary novel is not as antiquated as memories of Richardson’s Pamela (1740) or Stoker’s Dracula (1897) might suggest. Contemporary authors are, after all, chief among the fetishizers of dead media, and snail-mail epistolary novels get churned out regularly. But the email-epistolary novel, arguably kicked off by Matt Beaumont's e in 2000, has now achieved conventionality as well.

Perhaps, however, this isn’t so bizarre. Email offers fertile ground for the central elements (unreliable narrator, disjointed plot, use of multi-media etc.) of contemporary conventional literature. And then there is the fact that most people who write conventional lit are old; old, as in above thirty-five. And old people write emails. They might text and post on Facebook and Twitter-fight about the latest listicle, but they've been using email for decades. They’re comfortable with its possibilities, with the way they can control it.

While McNeil is correct in identifying the larger trend, Shteyngart's very distressing (if imperfect) semi-dystopia does offer a perceptive take on digital communication in the disparity between the twenty-four year old protagonist Eunice Park's communication IRL and IFL (In Fake Life) with her younger sister. They are only ever physically present together in front of their father, where they are silent and deferential, communicating "in a dance of glances, like two divorced spouses who hadn't seen each other in years and were now sizing each other up." But when they are on chat, they cut at one another, plead for forgiveness, profess their love, beg each other "not to be Political," give each other the silent treatment, and shop together; it's a real, fundamentally wet and screaming relationship—but only online.

The Antagonist and Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, however, are fully vulnerable to McNeil’s critique, reading like novels down to their grammar, punctuation, and syntax. The correspondent of The Antagonist is railing against a novelist-object-of-rage, so the form might be justified if he didn't confess to writing "sober or drunk." Very few drunk emails maintain their structure and tone this well. Where'd You Go, Bernadette? incorporates a barrage of emails from a variety of correspondents, a "Live-blog transcript" of a TEDTalk, chats, a PDF of an Artforum piece, etc. but when a mid-meeting IM exchange opens with "Everything OK? You seem distracted." rather than a hastily thumbed "u ok", it’s clear that Semple is uninterested in what separates new media from ink on paper.

The jumble of emails, chat, texts, blog posts, and Facebook updates used to narrate the last month or so of a teen's life in Reconstructing Amelia present mysteries, but don't confound the reader in the sense that cut-up techniques do. Abbreviations and a lax attitude to capitalization stab in the direction of authenticity, but McCreight isn’t interested in how her forty-something narrator uses new media, but rather how she reacts to her daughter’s use of it. She shifts through a pile of her daughter’s printed out emails and texts, expresses befuddlement by the sheer volume of texts, and is horrified by pics of her daughter "vamping" in underwear on her blog. Maternal shock is understandable, but sentiments like, "What on earth would possess her to take half-naked pictures of herself, much less post them online? It was the kind of thing that - No, it was not the kind of the thing that anyone did." seem sheltered. The age gap here doesnt generate contrast, just something close to moral panic.

McCreight does, however, display how people normally use email and new media. Chrostowska has no such interest, rather focusing on evoking a spectral presence behind a screen in all its self-satisfied narcissism. "I identify with the mask, or a series of masks, created for speaking to you," writes her solitary correspondent in Permission. The correspondent means to comment on her experience of writing the series of 27 anonymous emails to a filmmaker that comprise this text, but her remark also speaks more broadly to the effects of composing for an electronic medium—namely, the freedom it offers to experiment with one's identity. Contrast this with a quote from Clarice Lispector’s equally unconventional epistolary effort Água Viva (1973): "I write to you because I don't understand myself." Lispector’s correspondent accepts the static nature of selfhood, and uses correspondence as a means through which to attempt to understand herself; Chrostowska's accepts, and celebrates, the obfuscating nature of the screen and the fluid identity play it facilitates.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, I Phone Crack 2 (2013). Archival digital print. Gallery Paule Anglim.

Permission is not a novel, though I read it as one before the release of an interview in which Chrostowska explained her "experiment in giving" (in the words of her/her narrator) had been real, her aim not to expand the epistolary novel but "the art of letter-writing." Yet she comes closer than the novelists cited above to addressing a question posed by Žižek in his book In Defense of Lost Causes: "Is not, then, the internet, where we supposedly express on screen our deepest truths, really a site for the playing out of deceptive fantasies that protect us from the banal normality that is our truth?" Despite her perceptive take on the relationship between the self and the screen, it is indicative of how invested Chrostowska is in the tropes of old media that Permission's correspondent uses the phrase "taking up the pen" to describe her email-writing process.

 

2. The New Media Novel

In November, Emily Gould asked for examples of gchat layout in novels. Her query suggested that its usage remains uncommon, and perhaps some of the authors Gould’s followers suggested are drawn to the form by its current anarchic situation, as a genre that remains to be defined. None of these works are meant primarily as commentaries on new media, but their attention to the way we currently communicate reveals character and concern in a fundamentally different manner from the traditional novel, email-epistolary or not.

The least soaked in new media, Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), contains a single long IM conversation (the novel is set in 2004, predating Google Talk by a year) in which two correspondents lose the thread, as well as occasionally the topic itself, desperately scramble for conversational purchase, finish each others' sentences, and impatiently interject while waiting real-time for their transcontinental partner to finish a thought. Emoticons are eschewed, capitalization is irregular, and the experience comes very close to replicating a real-world experience of new media, such as when one correspondent interrupts his own story to ask "You there?" It is also the only time the narrator, transplanted to Spain, has what he considers to be a substantial conversation. Lerner is concerned with fraudulence, and the bad faith one engages in when one accepts and insists on one’s own status as a fraud.

Fraudulence is likewise a key theme in Jennifer Egan's A Visit From The Goon Squad (2010), a near-future section of which features brief bursts of social media that are unique in that they almost satisfy McNeil's urge for cut-up ("JD nEds 2 thnk"). The short narrative tells of an attempt to source "parrots," social media users paid to "create authentic word of mouth" for a concert. The parrot-seeker, Alex, finds himself able to engage in such chicanery because "he could never quite forget that every byte of information he’d posted online... was stored in the databases of multinationals." Mid-meeting, Alex's younger coworker, Lulu, requests that they T (communicate via handset) as "I just get tired of talking." When Alex agrees, Lulu "looked almost sleepy with relief." The switch in mediation leads to their first real personal exchange, Lulu telling him "Nvr met my dad. Dyd b4 I ws brn." Alex verbally expresses his condolences, "but his voice seemed too loud - a course intrusion." Realizing his mistake, Alex Ts "Sad." Taken together, these sections comprise a common conservative fear about new media: that it will destroy verbal and/or written culture, create an almost pathological lack of affect, demolish "authenticity" etc. Shteyngart deals with similar concerns, but, as Anne Trubek writes in her 2012 appreciation of Super Sad True Love Story "[h]e understands that easily derided obsessions with Facebook and Twitter...are what makes us human, not what spells our doom."

Speaking of pathological lack of affect, Tao Lin's novella Shoplifting From American Apparel (2009) presents "Gmail chat" as one would normally a verbal conversation, using "said" and complete sentences with proper capitalization. Lin undercuts this representation by not using any punctuation besides periods and commas, and his characters don't type "lol", or perhaps they do and Lin just relates it as "I’m laughing." Like Lerner's characters, Lin's lose the thread of their conversation, but do so in an exaggerated, ridiculous fashion. It's all deeply irritating and meant to be so. After an argument, the protagonist leaves his semi-girlfriend's apartment and texts her "that he liked her, didn’t have anything bad to say about her or her life, and didn’t agree at all with anything he had said." Contra-Egan, Lin doesn't suggest his characters have abandoned or been seduced away from an authentic position, or that they are now only able to communicate via tech, but rather that their attempts to communicate through any medium fail simply because they have no interior life.

Seecoy and Jon Rafman. Storyboard for Small Crowd Gathers to Watch Me Cry, written by Tao Lin. Forthcoming.

It's perhaps not enough to refer to Lin's work as being about/displaying blunted affect, which suggests that there is at least emotion present which is incapable of being expressed. His alienation from human emotion is more complete than that; Christian Lorentzen's coinage "Asperger’s realism" seems to have stuck. Joining Lin in this sub-genre is Marie Calloway, whose what purpose did i serve in your life (2013) is not, technically, a novel, but a collection of stories whose fictive element is uncertain. It is often difficult to tell if Calloway is copying and pasting from her gmail account, composing fresh, rewriting, or some combination of the three. Like Chrostowska, Calloway is deeply uninterested in attempting to replicate "normal" email discourse, with missives containing such lines as "'I’m glad that you are glad that I exist.' I responded." or "Thanks for typing all of that, I feel less awkward." Yet what purpose did i serve in your life is perhaps singular among the pieces discussed in that it could not possibly exist without the internet, so deeply is new media ingrained its structure. Calloway's work is primarily composed of communication with men on the internet, whether they be johns or writers, her sexual encounters with them IRL, the writing and publishing of these events, and the aftermath. (One section is composed of vicious personal criticism of Calloway superimposed over pictures of her in camgirl-esque poses.) New media is both seamlessly integrated, as Calloway is continually texting or composing and reading emails, as well as jarred by abrupt transitions: iPhone and Facebook chat is replicated with supposed screenshots, her correspondents’ avatars and details redacted CIA black-marker style.

Much like Permission, what purpose did i serve in your life is obsessed with anonymity—or, more precisely, pseudonymity. "Marie Calloway" is a nom de plume, and the titular male characters of her stories "Jeremy Lin" and "Adrien Brody" are thinly disguised writers; others go nameless. However, Calloway as a public figure is always central, such as when she details a brief ban from Facebook after posting pictures of bruises inflicted during rough sex. One could read Calloway as critic of the new mediated life, her prose resisting ethical examination and suggesting an inner life composed only of the desperate desire to be needed and medicated. Certainly Calloway feints toward this reading, though to discount her feminist brinkmanship would be to miss the point.

Both Chrostowska and Calloway’s work gesture toward an mutation of the epistolary novel into something which is neither epistolary nor a novel, utilizing new forms to explore questions of identity and the possibilities of anonymity. What's new about them isn't their use of Gyson-esque modes of contemporary digital communication, but a more fundamental understanding of how identity is staged in the internet age. When the identity of a supposed teenage correspondent in Reconstructing Amelia is revealed, it is a mystery solved. Chrostowska and Calloway, however, hue more closely to Sacheverell Sitwell's quote, "In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation."

The antiquated does not need to be destroyed and plowed under; its preeminence will no doubt erode as texting, chat, social media etc. become just as "safe" as snail-mail. As Wikipedia intones in the voice of a zen monastic, "[n]ew media deals with the issue of things being new," and soon we will be forced to write about ourselves in another way.