Reader, I Muted Him: The Narrative Possibilities of Networked Life

By posted at 6:00 am on March 19, 2015 14


At the Edinburgh Festival in 2001, Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff grew so frustrated by the interruptions of cellphones and coughing that he left the stage, suggesting the audience use the break to finish making noise. A reviewer for called it, “Fantasia in C Minor with mobile phone, beeping watches and coughing and sneezing accompaniment,” which sounds like an enjoyable evening of John Cage but not, apparently, what Schiff intended.

A decade later in Presov, Slovakia, a solo viola performance by Lukas Kmit was interrupted by the ubiquitous Nokia ringtone. Kmit paused, casting a frustrated eye on the audience — toward the guilty party, presumably, who isn’t visible in this viral video of the event. But rather than stop his performance or abandon the stage, he played the ringtone back on his instrument, adding an improvisational touch and incorporating the moment into his concert in a spontaneous acknowledgement — despite the frustration and rudeness — of the human nature of live performance. The disruption of art became art.

Which isn’t to suggest Schiff was wrong to get angry. Neither were the players and listeners at a 2012 New York Philharmonic concert brought to a halt by an iPhone’s marimba ringtone, or any number of similar interruptions of music, theater, public speaking, and (I can attest) teaching in recent years. Such interruptions are by now a fact of public life, regrettable as that may be, just as the industrial and mechanized sounds of George Antheil’s “Ballet Mécanique” — so shocking in 1926 that they sparked a riot among concertgoers — have faded into the background of our aural lives.

Because when wild birds, usually part of that background sound themselves, take to singing our ringtones back to us, what chance do even the most austere of classical musicians have to resist? We become like the lyrebird faithfully mimicking not only phones and car alarms but the sound of chainsaws felling the very trees where it lives. It’s hard not to hear cultural ruin, melodramatic as that may be, in every interrupting chirp and chime of a phone receiving a text or a call or blasting a video through its speakers on a packed subway train. The citizen in me, greedy for chances at quiet reflection and, frankly, to be left in peace from unwelcome noises, shudders and laments.

But the artist in me, the writer, asks a more probing question, if not necessarily more optimistic: what might I do with all this? Because whether we lament the disruption or not, Kmit’s incorporation of the ringtone into his concert acknowledges that art is made in the world as we find it, not the world as we wish it was.

Authors of literary fiction often seem to take pride in their avoidance of networked tools from cell phones to Wikipedia. In 2009, under the headline “If Only Literature Could Be a Cellphone-Free Zone,” The New York Times shared examples of what author Matt Richtel called, “a brewing antagonism toward today’s communication gadgets,” i.e., writers lamenting the inconvenience of cell phones and other tools rendering moot (and mute) any number of familiar, time-worn storytelling devices from getting lost to missing a romantic connection. Two years later, Ann Patchett told The Washington Post,

And I just don’t know how to write a novel in which the characters can get in touch with all the other characters at any moment. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of cellphones. I don’t know how to write a novel in the world of Google, in which all factual information is available to all characters. So I have to stand on my head to contrive a plot in which the characters lose their cellphone and are separated from technology.

As Patchett acknowledges, it takes work — contrivances and contortions — to write fiction that presents itself as contemporary but avoids the inclusion of contemporary devices. Consider how long you might be able to walk down a street without spotting a smartphone, versus how many pages of characters existing in public you might be able read without seeing one mentioned. The avoidance of cell phones, in particular, gives rise to its own set of clichés, already as familiar and, perhaps, already as frayed as the ill-fated timing and last minute arrivals of older stories. And, the more we expect to always have a signal, the harder it is to conceive a convincing situation in which a character does not, as a popular supercut of horror film moments makes clear.

In literary fiction, the more popular solution seems to be relying on settings close to the present, but far enough back to avoid such inconvenience. Granted, the popularity of the 1970s, 1980s, and early-1990s as settings also owes plenty to generational shifts in literary production as people write about formative periods and the years they remember. But it also avoids any number of narrative problems and allows writers to go on telling stories in the way they are used to, rather than incorporating the present in ways that are difficult and disruptive. When I recently wondered on Twitter — one of those very disruptions — if we’ve reached the point of needing a term for this kind of setting, author Jared Yates Sexton suggested “the nostalgic present.” And while it’s easy enough to incorporate mention of that into this essay, where might a tweet fit into a novel? As dialogue, formatted like any other character’s utterance? Or embedded with timestamp and retweet count and all? What happens when our characters spend half their novel on Twitter, as so many of us spend our workdays? It’s a hard question, but not one that gets answered when writers aspire to be more like Andras Schiff than Lukas Kmit.

I don’t mean to praise disruption or dismiss the challenges of networked life, and I wouldn’t take a proscriptive stand on “what fiction should do.” I am not, frankly, an enthusiast of cell phones or even landlines, which I have been known to unplug for days at a time, to the annoyance of housemates. I find it ever more disorienting, though, to read novels set in this “nostalgic present,” ambiguously atemporal as if they could take place any time between the 1950s and early-1990s. Or, more disorienting still, set very clearly in the present but without its technological trappings. These avoidances make the art seem less vital, less able to speak to the present, and like a choice more concerned with making things easy on writers than with offering something to readers. I’ve had some surprisingly heated arguments with other writers, making me an unintentional champion of cell phones and search engines in fiction, but what it comes down to is that I don’t see these elements of contemporary life as destructive of narrative possibilities, but as sources for new possibilities. I’ve become something of a collector of fictional moments in which networked life matters. Not the simple inclusion of emails and other “found texts” in a novel, nor casual mentions of characters owning phones and computers, but scenes in which these technologies allow writers to show something distinctly now, for better or worse, as unexpected yet instantly familiar as a ringtone played on a viola or sung by a bird.

In their article “If Romeo and Juliet Had Mobile Phones,” Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie explore not only how William Shakespeare’s young lovers would see their play’s plot devices undone by cell phones, but also how the presence of such devices would necessarily alter the characters and their world psychologically, socially, and romantically to create not a “failed” version of the story as we know it but a new story with its own possibilities. The original story would be made impossible not by the inconvenience of Romeo texting Juliet to let her know he’s only asleep, but because the ubiquity of networks would make everything different from their sense of public versus private space, the possibility for unsupervised conversation, and their identities hinging on broader social networks than only their families. That’s what undermines so much fiction set in the “nostalgic present,” an unsettling, uncanny valley-esque sense that apart from pretending cell phones don’t exist, the story is set in our time. Because the authors are writing from a networked world and seeing life through that lens whether they allow it to their characters or not. So why not embrace it? Why not make it matter, because it already does however much we doth protest?

coverIt’s not as if cell phones and networks get rid of the loneliness and misunderstanding upon which so much fiction depends. The Pew Research Center’s report “Social Isolation and the New Technology” demonstrates that handily enough, and as Wellman and Rainie put it in their book Networked, we’re experiencing “the weakening — but not the death — of distance.” As long as there’s distance between people and places, between intention and action and understanding, there’s plenty of room to tell stories.

And not only in simple ways like rethinking plot twists, so that instead of arriving too late to spot one another, our characters arrive on time but neither looks up from their phone to notice the other. Or someone pretends to be someone else via text message or email, or steals an identity leading to a chain of dramatic events. A character might miss crucial information because she is distracted from listening to someone in front of her, physically, while more engrossed in what a second disembodied person is telling her on a screen in her hand. Or hears noises in the background while on the phone with his wife, and paranoia sets in about who she was with and to what end. Plot twists are hardly ruined by technology, merely changed, because those mechanical problems are easily solved; it’s the other possibilities that prove more interesting.

coverFor instance, in his novel Running Away (translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith), Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s narrator is aboard a night train in China. While he rides, he talks on the phone to his partner, Marie, back in Paris on a daylight visit to the Louvre. The narrator experiences and describes his own present vividly, while also imagining or reconstructing Marie’s movement through the museum, all of which is entwined in important personal news she is sharing. It’s a scene remarked on and discussed by a number of critics, and by the author himself on KCRW’s Bookworm, because in the collapse of time, space, and physical but not, crucially, emotional distance, the moment demonstrates the potential for loneliness and separation to be deepened rather than assuaged by our devices. It is a kind of contradictory distance possible only in the present, when we have the expectation of always being in touch, but as in Jacques Lacan’s mirror, we are troubled by not touching or being touched as our full selves.

We’re also able — and our characters, too — to remain “in touch” with people no longer accessible to us. There’s a particular sadness to annual Facebook reminders of the birthday of a friend (or Friend, perhaps one we’ve never actually met and years ago accepted an anonymous request from out of an unclear sense of online politeness or blasé unwillingness to rock the social networking boat) after that person has passed away. How long do we leave them among our Friends? Do we reply with birthday wishes and memories? More awkwardly, but with so much potential for fiction, do we respond to their automated natal reminder without realizing they’re dead, as someone inevitably does on Facebook?

covercovercoverIn Johanna Sinisalo’s novel The Blood of Angels, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers, a grieving father reads the blog of his recently dead activist son, seeing the vitriol directed at him for his politics from anonymous strangers. This isn’t the spark for a revenge story, though it could be (and has been, somewhat, in Will Ferguson’s novel 419). It’s more akin to what remains the saddest, loneliest passage I’ve ever read, a moment in Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific when the author, adrift among distant islands, dreams of one of his children writing,

Long after he died — for weeks, for months — we kept receiving postcards from Dad, because he had traveled so far and to such small and insignificant places.

It’s all the more heartbreaking now that I’m a father myself, as I wasn’t 20 years ago at first reading. And Sinisalo’s grieving father is heartbreaking, too, because not only is he reading these post-mortem political missives from his lost child, but is seeing a conversation continue around them knowing his son can’t respond despite the blog format anticipating that response inherently — to look at a blog entry is to expect another, or to be curious, perhaps pessimistically saddened, by the long time passed since the last post. Grief, of course, is familiar, and so is loss. But there’s something distinctly modern about a loss that refuses to be made final thanks to our digital ghosts.

coverIt’s those moments, the ones that could only happen now in a networked era, that I’m most interested in as a reader and writer. And my favorite of these, a passage that sings to me as impossible to write in the past, even a few years ago, comes from Mohsin Hamid’s novel How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia

On the outskirts of the city over which this drone is today validating its performance parameters, a crowd is gathering at a graveyard. Two vehicles stand out among those parked nearby. One is a van, emblazoned with the name and phone number of a commercial spray painter, possibly even belonging to the deceased, for it is being used as a hearse to transport his white-shrouded body. The other is a luxury automobile from which emerges a pale of male figures in suits, a man in his sixties and a slender, teenage boy, perhaps his grandson. These two are conspicuously well dressed, contrasting with most of the other mourners, yet they must be closely related to the fellow who has died, since they lend their shoulders to the task of bearing his corpse to the fresh-dug pit. The elder of them now commences to sob, his torso flexing spasmodically, as though wracked by a series of coughs. He looks up to the heavens.

The drone circles a few times, its high-powered eye unblinking, and flies observantly on.

It isn’t just the novelty of the drone’s-eye view, of which this may be the first instance in literature (and if it isn’t, I’d love to know about others). It’s the juxtaposition of a deeply human moment — perhaps the most human, a funeral — with a deeply inhuman, or at least disembodied, observer. We readers only witness this moment because of a drone passing over and presumably that happens by chance as there’s no reason this particular funeral might be a priority target. And yet, who knows, because the mere presence of a drone suggests we are all possible targets, all the time, and that even in our most intimate, emotional moments of grief and loss, our experiences are consumed by and bound up in global networks of technology and power. The drone is unblinking, it flies on unaffected, but we who gaze through its eye hang onto the image of life even after whatever agency operates the craft might reject the funeral as useless data, and delete it make room for another day’s record. It’s a god’s-eye view without any god, only the eye of some pilot many miles away, implicating the reader and the states and systems we are willing or willfully blinded participants in.

I want to discover such moments more often in fiction as a reader and, if I’m able, as a writer. Not to deny the frustrations of cell phones, or because I’m any less anxious about surveillance and corporatization and the commodification of social life. Those things terrify me, obsessively so, but they also fascinate me, and as an artist I want to engage them rather than pretend they aren’t part of how we live now and — it’s hard to imagine otherwise — how we will live the rest of our lives. Pretending otherwise in our stories will only make them appear ossified and exacerbate complaints that literature has nothing left for today’s readers, never mind tomorrow’s who might someday ask how we made sense of ourselves.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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14 Responses to “Reader, I Muted Him: The Narrative Possibilities of Networked Life”

  1. CJ
    at 8:58 am on March 19, 2015

    Thank you, for your wonderful sensitivity and artistic sense. This was a beautiful essay. Please write more.

  2. Lee Rainie
    at 2:46 pm on March 19, 2015

    What a fabulous citation of our book. Can’t thank you enough for that, but even more for having “gotten it” so thoroughly and well.

  3. Michael
    at 6:40 pm on March 19, 2015

    Some good thoughts in here, thanks.

    Except that it would be Juliet who texts Romeo to say she’s about to take the sleeping potion.

  4. Ed Desautels
    at 10:18 am on March 23, 2015

    I think writers engaged in literary fiction are precisely the people least engaged in the technologies of “the networked life,” hence the absence of these technologies in their works. But, can you really blame them? First off, how do you spend your life networked and still get anything worthwhile done? Second, is there really any point to it? Twenty-plus years down the line the World Wide Web has shown itself to be an unusable failure larded with fluff elaborated by advertising. Texts and Tweets, Facebook status updates, the latest ones and zeros tossed up into Pinterest–they’re little more than the superficial ejaculations of a gadget-mad, distracted society with little of substance to say but which is bound and determined to Tweet it as it veers off into the ditch. This condition itself might be fertile ground for exploration, and I’m sure subsequent generations will get better at it. But if you’re not already hard-wired it feels forced to pepper your narrative with the flotsam and jetsam of this supposed networked life out of some misguided fealty to verisimilitude. I recall novelist Paul West noting some twenty years ago, “Soon we will be awash in so much electronic mediocrity we’ll go blind.” Indeed, if not blind we’ve certainly become a society of Mr. Magoos.

  5. I.M.
    at 9:00 pm on March 23, 2015

    A really beautiful essay. One to make me optimistic. However, as a “literary” writer my biggest concern/fear re: technology in literature is its hyperactive evolution and its inevitable obsolescence. If you write a novel using Twitter, Facebook, et al. there is no telling how quickly that particular technology or social space will become obsolete gibberish to a reader. I think, in general, this is why literature has always had a shaky relationship with technology: the worry of the passing fad. But in our case, we have only to reference the past five years to see how quickly things fall out of fashion, or disappear altogether.

  6. Robino
    at 9:36 am on March 24, 2015

    This article misses a point, I believe : it’s not so much about how an author integrates the “networked life” into his narratives, but rather how the so-called “networked life” is so intertwined into the author’s life that it’s not even a thing. This concept of “networked life” reminds me of how some people where pushing the concept of the “virtual” versus the “real” when personal computers, then the web, emerged (at least in France, in the late 1990’s you would often hear that the “virtual world threatens experience of the real”).

    We came to understand that the experience of computer technology and digital data is no more “virtual”, no less “real” than the experience of the smell of a flower. The same applies here : “networked life” is a wrong concept, because as it stood, “networked life” is no less “life” than “concrete life”; there’s just a seamless experience of human life.

    If you try “using moments of the networked life” you are more acting like a script-writer than like a literary author. Literature is about embracing the human condition as a whole. I’m not an expert but in the vague and vast realm of “sci-fi” you find numerous examples of stories integrating far more “connected infrastructures” than what we’re experiencing in a “Facebook-Twitter-Google”-centered world. These networks have been in literature for quite a long time now, and wether it’s used or not in narratives is more about the inner sensibility of an author, i.e his very own experience of the human condition.

    If you don’t think about “all things networked” organically… well, you simply can’t use it right in your writings. But then you can decide to spend a lot of time on Twitter/Snapchat/the Silk Road/etc., you can begin to expand your experience towards these “things”, and this experience might blend into your stories. Just as if you decide to retreat from the world in Yakushima forest (that would be against the law), you will experience an organic and spiritual response to a tree-covered, uninhabited environment.

  7. Robino
    at 10:07 am on March 24, 2015

    I.M. > Maybe it doesn’t matter if Twitter, Facebook, et al. fall out of fashion. Any fiction is grounded in its time, and it’s probably an illusion to believe that you can tell stories without using tangible things. Even profound existential novels have “things” from the author’s world. Twitter is a tangible thing, it is describable in quite objective terms as a technological system.

    If you mention Twitter, as a literary author preoccupied with the obsolescence of his work, you can either :

    -choose to describe it with great precision and carefully selected words, so that readers will be able to “get it” even in 2.000 years. (can we speak about in-narrative technical explanations?). It can be a bore for the reader, but it can also be very instructive. I haven’t read a lot of historic novels but this is probably what some authors do when they mention something that doesn’t exist anymore.

    -count on the future edition footnotes that will describe it with great precision and carefully selected words. ;)

    Between these two extreme solutions (“in-narrative explanations”, “extra-narrative explanations”) you have many possibilities : your story in itself, the context that you’ve constructed, can tell a lot about what Twitter, even before you’ve mentioned it.

  8. Shelley
    at 12:12 pm on March 24, 2015

    Phones and everything on them: trivial.

  9. Steven Volynets
    at 4:28 pm on March 24, 2015

    Wonderful essay. But the simple response is, it depends. “What happens when our characters spend half their novel on Twitter, as so many of us spend our workdays?” I suppose this rhetoric works if you write about people whose jobs allow them to tweet while on the job. I’ve never had a job like that. I also once wrote a story set in 2011 about highrise window cleaners. They can’t spend half their workdays tweeting because at 800 ft in the sky their smartphones become lethal debris. So while Mr. Himmer does a great job formulating his own taste in fiction — and there is lots to agree with here, especially his point about the disorienting effect of narratives completely marooned in history — reading itself is already a networked experience.

  10. Stephan Kuepper
    at 6:19 am on March 30, 2015

    Since you’re asking – Richard Power’s latest novel “Orfeo” is structured by tweets (although the reader only realises that towards the end). Zadie Smith’s NW is another book that comes to mind, dealing a lot with networked individuals and their various facets. Roddy Doyle’s main character in “The Guts” keeps texting quite matter-of-factly, and all characters simply live in today’s world without reflecting much on it (the author, though, is very much aware).

    You may also like this article: (I’m not related to this in any way, just found it interesting and on topic).

  11. Erica W
    at 4:49 am on April 7, 2015

    I see a distinct generational divide between those who’ve grown up with cell phones and Twitter, and those who’ve adopted them (reluctantly or enthusiastically) as adults. I suspect we’ll see some interesting fiction from this generation as they come on the literary scene – if indeed they write books for each other, rather than sticking with online media.

    In some ways I see the iPhone as a substitute for the novels I always dragged along on extended-family visits as a teen: an excuse to withdraw from company, to leave the elders to their boring after-dinner talk of insurance and health complaints, and perhaps escape one’s own self-conscious adolescent social awkwardness.
    Having your youthful indiscretions happen in a medium that keeps public records – Facebook posts from slumber parties being available to future employers – creates a kind of social pressure that reminds me more of Edwardian novels of manners than modern cyberpunk. The high drama of lives ‘ruined’ by a public misunderstanding, or indiscretion. Text is so, so fraught with the potential for misunderstanding. You could write an entire short story as an email or text dialogue with the emotional interpretations at cross-purposes. Autocorrect errors are slapstick buffoonery compared to the misunderstandings we create with our own unclear word choices.

    While the urban world may have ubiquitous signal, not everyone does. Much of the rural US has unreliable signal, and cell networks get swamped in disasters. My husband has drowned 3 phones and cracked a 4th while boating, most within a week of their purchase. But I agree, if the absense of signal is going to occur at a critical time, it should be part of the fabric of the story before that point. The struggle to keep up with peers on a second-hand or damaged phone could be a good metaphor for poor relations. Ring-tones are one indicator of status and taste that I hear being actually commented on in conversations, whether or not the call itself happens in the same space.

    It would be worth exploring the dynamics between people with mutual interest, but different degrees of connectedness. What does it mean if she waits 45 minutes before returning your text? What does it imply when my intermittent signal delivers a text or voicemail 3 days late? Are Facebook and Twitter and other online hangouts the equivalent of clubs and pubs? The coffeeshop seems to be a confluence of both types of hangout space.

    I could very much see Juliette’s parents taking away her cell phone if they found her sexting at 13. It would be a plot change; the original parental disapproval is immutable and oblivious, almost a fact of geography more than a character. Active interference from the parents would be quite different. The active malevolence in the original is done by young people; films use the gang analogy. But gangs were always tragic; would they ever be expected to place the public good above their vendetta?
    The original is framed as a lesson to powerful families who let their feud ruin lives. Does digital connectivity make this less common? What of a Juliet born into the household of a right-wing Islamic cleric, or a young Israeli draftee with no real gift for militance? Is it so hard to envision a modern context in which two young people could fall in love impossibly, unwisely, and irreparably? The fact that most urban youth are more sexually liberal means nothing; most English youth did not live in Padua either.

    Just Romeo losing the phone and contacts list (perhaps as a chilllingly-direct result of spilling blood on it, rather than a judicial banishment) could be the equivalent of exile, creating virtual distance and the illusion of rejection. What mutual friend would pass a message? A call to the priest’s (listed) number might very well reach the parish office (and the official story of Juliet’s sudden demise) rather than the priest himself. And it would be oh-so-easy for the message to Romeo to go astray – a missed digit in his new number, a forgetful priest texting the old phone instead of the new.

    Could they still reach a state of disconnection sufficient to move two young people to mutual suicide? The digital network is certainly no barrier to despair.

  12. Links for a Thursday | Reading the End
    at 6:01 am on April 9, 2015

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