I Come Not To Praise The Internet Novel

by Derek Neal

phone scaledThere has been talk in recent years of what is termed “the internet novel.” The internet, or more precisely, the smartphone, poses a problem for novels. If a contemporary novel wants to seem realistic, or true to life, it must incorporate the internet in some way, because most people spend their days immersed in it. Characters, for example, must check their phones frequently. For example:

“I looked at my phone and scrolled through Instagram. Why did I do this? A habit, a reflex. I put the phone back in my pocket and scanned my eyes over the playground, a tinge of panic running through me until I spotted Lucy, swinging from the monkey bars. I watched for a bit until I reached in my pocket again, opening the Bumble notification that had just appeared.”

Scenes like this may occur in any contemporary novel without necessarily meeting the definition of an “internet novel.” To pass the threshold, the internet or the smartphone must play a pivotal role in the story, acting not as just a background item or a plot device, but as something that actively structures the consciousness of the characters. The characters’ inner lives must be conditioned in some way by their frequent use of the internet—in particular, social media via their phones—and this must then deeply affect their actions. In these novels, the idea that “the internet is not real life” is not true; the characters have crossed the Rubicon, as it were, to live in a universe where the internet and social media have been fully integrated with every other part of existence. This type of book, however, may be at odds with the reasons we read novels in the first place.

One of the reasons I enjoy reading novels is because they allow us to enter a different world than the one we inhabit in our day to day lives. I don’t want to say they are an escape from real life; rather, they reorient our relationship to life and allow us to see reality more clearly. In this way, they are the polar opposite of smartphones and social media, which create a simulacrum of reality and distract us from being present. The internet, the smartphone, and social media are fundamentally antithetical to the goal of the literary novel, or at least to my vision of the literary novel. Why would I want to read about a character consumed by the internet when one of the main reasons I’m reading a novel in the first place is to escape this fate for myself?

I’ve read two novels that could be considered internet novels. The first, which I read about a year ago, is Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler. This is considered to be one of the genre’s best, from my understanding. The second, which I just finished, is Red Pill by Hari Kunzru. I’m not sure if this one is considered an internet novel by the people who make such distinctions, but I believe it fits in this category.

I did not set out to read internet novels. I read these two because they both concern Americans in Europe—in this case, Berlin—and the genre of Americans abroad, à la Henry James and Patricia Highsmith, is one of my favorites. I should say that I enjoyed both books; I read them quickly, wanting to find out what happened next, and I was certainly entertained. But I was also disappointed, and neither one lived up to the hype surrounding it. I could say this about most contemporary fiction I read, however, so I don’t want to be too harsh. When I think back to the books I’ve enjoyed recently, they’ve mostly been classics or written by Nobel Prize recipients, and that’s an unrealistic bar to set as a means of comparison. My main criticism of these internet novels is that the stories seem too much like, well, the internet. The dramas that play out and the things that are supposed to make us feel something amount to little more than the excitement that comes from a Twitter feud or the schadenfreude of a viral video. The gravitas that a novel should carry is lacking, and it feels as if the novel will be swiped away and instantly replaced by something new.

The narrator of Fake Accounts writes this midway through the novel: “Why would I want to make my book like Twitter? If I wanted a book that resembled Twitter, I wouldn’t write a book; I would just spend even more time on Twitter.” The issue is that the narrator of Fake Accounts does spend a lot of time on Twitter, and she tells us about it. The word “Twitter” appears 31 times in the novel. The word “Instagram” appears 23 times. The word “Facebook” appears 16 times. The narrator is constantly checking her profiles, seeing what the topic of the day is, and relating this information to us. She chronicles an argument on the Facebook page for the Women’s March in the wake of Trump’s election that devolves into a racial conflict. She attempts to discover the identity of a Twitter user named @HelenofTroyWI. She narrates her experience of jumping from tab to tab and reading snippets of various articles, emails, and tweets. As a way to narrate the experience of an online person, this is effective. But is it something I want to read? Again, the narrator said it best herself: if I wanted this experience, I could just go on my social media feed.

The plot of the novel is also conditioned by the characters’ use of social media. In the first part of the novel, the narrator decides to break up with her boyfriend when she discovers that he runs a conspiracy theory Instagram account. It is unclear if he is doing this seriously or if he’s trolling the gullible users who follow his account. We never find out, because the narrator does not ask him. Instead, his online actions are considered so beyond the pale that no explanation is required. I found this justification bizarre, but I suppose this is the sort of logic used by people who cut off contact with their family members over politics, which is another thing I find bizarre.

After the break up, the narrator moves to Berlin and starts to create her own “fake accounts” on OkCupid. She goes on dates, creating a new backstory each time and seeing what happens. The internet and social media in particular allow us to construct versions of ourselves that we then try to live up to in reality, blurring the boundaries between what is real and what is online. Interspersed into the events of the novel are other details and asides that show the narrator’s consciousness, which is heavily conditioned by internet use. For example, the narrator randomly tells her boyfriend about something she’s looking at on her phone (Kara’s in Australia), which is completely out of context. Another time, she tells us about her friend who does not have a shower in her apartment, writing, “Nell did not smell bad or have hair that was dirtier than any other hip young woman—as I’m sure you know by now, washing one’s hair too frequently strips it of vital natural oils, etc.—so I asked her how she was so clean.” The aside about washing one’s hair too often is the sort of thing that would be in a listicle, an Instagram reel, or a YouTube tutorial, which is why she assumes that we know about it. The narration is scattered with these sorts of irrelevant details that have nothing to do with…anything. They remind me of when I’m talking to someone and they say something for which we have no established basis: “I can’t believe [insert celebrity] died,” or “eating cured meats will raise your blood pressure.” What are you talking about? I want to ask these people. I don’t know this celebrity; I’m not even eating salami. Why do you assume that I will be aware of what you’re talking about without introducing it first? I feel like we are living in different worlds, and in a certain sense, I guess we are. In this regard, Fake Accounts is an effective account of a millennial consumed by the internet, but the question remains, does it work as a novel?

In Red Pill, the narrator begins to lose his mind due to watching a TV show called Blue Lives about corrupt police officers. A streaming service autoplays episodes from the show, brainwashing the narrator into believing its worldview where everything is a cynical power struggle and the future is a totalitarian dystopia brought about through technology and AI. This might not be so far fetched, but the narrator begins to believe he is the only one who can stop this future from becoming reality, and his actions become increasingly unhinged. It’s not just the TV show that affects him, but the time he spends on internet forums like Reddit, scrolling through racist memes and Fascist ideology. The novel is quite strong in the first half, when the narrator is unable to work and wanders aimlessly about the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, where he is at a research center for a writing retreat. In this section the novel has a dreamlike quality, and the world the narrator imagines is believable. But when the world in the narrator’s head meets reality, it falls apart. The climax of the novel, the big moment when we see that the narrator is not insane, but actually the sane one, while everyone else is clueless, is November 8, 2016. The election of Donald Trump.

This moment is cast as a turning point. The narrator writes:

“Up until now there have been two tracks or timelines: the one that Rei and this little group of friends live on, in which the future is predictable, an extrapolation from the past, a steady progression in which we are gradually turning into our own mothers and fathers, men and women who make plans and save for retirement, who go to our kids’ schools and participate in parent-teacher conferences, our adult bodies too big for the child-size furniture. Then there’s the second track, the occult track on which all this normality is a paper screen over something bloody and atavistic that is rising up out of history to meet us…My madness, the madness for which I’ve been medicated and therapized and involuntarily detained, is about to become everyone’s madness.”

I did not find this convincing. I admit, that night was tough for me, too. I remember watching it with my dad, and how we decided to watch Fox News so that we could see the disappointment on the pundits’ faces as Clinton crushed Trump. The joke, of course, was on us. But in the aftermath of 2016, and in the four years that followed, fascism did not come to America. While Trump did cause a great deal of damage, much of the discomfort he caused was due to how he acted, not what he actually did. George W. Bush, who seems to be a darling in the eyes of many now, even liberals, is a war criminal, but he didn’t act like a buffoon (at least most of the time), so he gets a pass.

Long before Trump, I knew I wasn’t “turning into my parents” or “saving for retirement.” The student loan crisis, the lack of healthcare, the pipe dream of home ownership for people of my generation (I’m 30), these problems have their roots much further back than 2016. I have a “good” job at a university; my partner has a “good” job at a union; if it was 1980, or even 1990, we’d own a house and have two cars. Instead, we rent a studio apartment in an attic and drive a 2012 Mazda. Oh, and we live in Canada, the promised land. Trust me, it’s barely any different here.

So, the fact that Trump’s election is supposed to be vindication for the narrator in his deranged worldview, in his belief that the world is coming to an end, is something that I think can only be believable to someone who spends way too much time on the internet, constantly reading CNN or MSNBC updates on their Apple Watch, and is unaware that the United States before 2016 was not a paradise or a bastion of virtue. The idea, promoted and advanced through social media, that everything can be cast as a Manichean game of good versus evil, is simply not true. If I spend a few days without checking Twitter, I return to the site and realize how stupid and senseless the conservations everyone is having on there really are. If I spend a day without my phone, I realize just how long 24 hours are.

Fake Accounts and Red Pill present alternative paths for narrators consumed by the internet. In the former, the narrator is aware, to a certain extent, that her mind is being warped, and she unsuccessfully and futilely tries to escape it. In the latter, the narrator is also aware that the internet is making him sick, but he thinks that it’s allowing him to see a hidden reality that others cannot; it is a source of enlightenment for him.

I don’t think either novel fully succeeds, but then again, I’m not sure an internet novel can succeed as literature. The internet, social media, smartphones, they all take us out of time, fragmenting our consciousness and making our lives pass before us without us realizing it. I don’t wish to propose some sweeping definition of literature or art in general, but I increasingly think it’s about slowing down time, putting the reader or the viewer into time and making them aware of each moment of their existence. I’m not sure this goal can be achieved when the guiding narrative consciousness of a novel is unable to do this, unable to be fully aware of its own existence.

What to do then when writing a contemporary novel? One solution to the internet novel is to escape it. To steal a line from Bret Easton Ellis, a novel is a dream, not reality. A novel can be set in 2023 and not feature cell phones, or social media, or the internet. Why not? The other possibility is to take up the challenge: to write something that succeeds as literature while also somehow capturing the consciousness of an internet addled brain. I think it’s possible, but I haven’t seen it yet, and I’m not sure I really want to.

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