LOS ANGELES TIMES
Tuesday April 18, 2006
If Big Brother had a blog, he would be its webmaster
Lightning struck near the tiny valley town of
Kirn, given his pastoral surroundings, might seem an unlikely candidate to be writing an "online novel." But the author of "Thumbsucker" and "
"I was both enthusiastic and doubtful," he says. "The old school part of me was brainwashed into thinking that writing on the Internet was a form of slumming or self-cheapening, kind of like publishing your own book at Kinko's." On the other hand, the editor assigned to the project was Meghan O'Rourke, formerly a fiction editor at the New Yorker and hardly an illiterate Web nerd.
The result is "The Unbinding," a serialized Web novel and a rumination on technology today, its first segment posted at Slate.com in March with postings continuing twice weekly through June. Kirn depicts technology as a looming Orwellian force, spying on the citizenry, turning our insides outward; yet Big Brother is not an ominous other but we, the people: We've internalized the totalitarian apparatus, and thus technology becomes at once our attempt at salvation, connection, love, meaning, and the vehicle of our own oppression. The loss of privacy makes for comedy, at first, and then for a sense of foreboding as trampled boundaries refuse to reappear.
In short: Everybody's spying on everybody (including themselves). At the center of it all is Kent, who works for the omnipresent corporation AidSat, which monitors millions of sensor-transmitters worn by its subscribers. Lost? Having chest pains? Can't remember your brother-in-law's boss' birthday? Press a button on your AidSat enabled bracelet or earring and you'll reach an operator like Kent who tracks you with satellites, monitors your vital signs and provides whatever help or information you so desire. Sometimes, operators track you unbidden.
Kirn watches, also, through the Internet, sitting up nights at the kitchen table at his farm, wearing boxers, an owl hooting in the blackness beyond. He watches the world, watches us. He follows the political furor surrounding the National Security Agency wiretapping controversy, the parental furor arising from teens baring their souls (and other things) on social networking sites and video repositories such as Youtube.com. News of our world filters into the world of "The Unbinding," which filters back into our world -- say, this article -- which filters back into "The Unbinding." The first mainstream media review of this novel-in-progress, in the Boston Globe, appeared as a link in a following chapter. An AidSat operator tracked it down; apparently, their computer systems index multiple worlds.
Want to appear in a Walter Kirn novel? Now's your chance. Quick, do something crazy, and do it publicly. The clock's ticking; "The Unbinding" won't be evolving forever, it's set to be published as a book -- to be bound -- after its run at Slate. Kirn is considering selling the print rights on EBay.
"One of the essential lessons this book has already taught me," Kirn says, "is that the greatest threat to our privacy may not be the intrusions of Big Brother, but our own instinct for self-exploitation. People put out more stuff about themselves on Myspace.com than the government could ever hope to collect about them. The fear that we're being watched, these days, is evoking a kind of exhibitionism that may be as dangerous as being spied on."
Kirn's isn't the first online novel; the Internet boomed with hundreds of amateur "hypertext novels" almost as early as the birth of the medium, filled with links giving way to links, a postmodern pastiche of traces, although most of these read more like code than literature. Stephen King began publishing his online novel, "The Plant," in 2000, about a supernatural vine that infiltrated a paperback publishing house, offering up limitless wealth in exchange for human flesh.
"What made 'The Plant' such a hilarious Internet natural," King wrote in 2001, "was that publishers and media people seemed to see exactly this sort of monster whenever they contemplate the Net in general and e-lit in particular: a troublesome strangler fig that just might have a bit o' the old profit in it. If, that is, it's handled with gloves." King netted $600,000 from readers who paid on the honor system, then ceased publication after six chapters.
Dave Eggers serialized a political novel for the online magazine Salon in 2004. "I wrote that really as a chance to react quicker, in some oblique way, to what was actually going on in the political world," Eggers says. "There were references to things going on in the real
The audience for "The Unbinding" hovers between 3,000 and 9,000, depending on the day, says O'Rourke, the editor. "Even if we had 700 readers," she says, "I was going to be very happy." O'Rourke is pursuing other writers -- well-known writers, although she declines to say names -- to publish their novels online in Slate. "If you're going to write a novel, the deal we're offering is very good," she says. "It's not an insignificant amount of money for just working on the novel. It's a model that writers have had for a long time, since going back to Dickens, being paid to serialize a novel." O'Rourke says that online readers are also likely to buy the physical book.
Of course what separates "The Unbinding" from previous serializations is its intertwining of form and content, its evolving investigation into the membrane between writer and reader, these umbilical cords, these flickering screens. Kirn has little idea where the story will take us, whether Kent and the others will embrace technology until all walls crumble and they find nirvana in the freedom of self-revelation -- or whether they'll turn away, if they're able, seek solace in ye olde flesh-to-flesh.
He receives guidance, constantly, from the nethers of the Net. "It's creating a little bit of a paranoid atmosphere," he says. "Just as my characters in the book are making friends with people who are actually spying on them, just as my characters are spying on people they're pretending to befriend, I get e-mails from readers, and you have no idea who's writing and why. I have lots of uncertain karma," Kirn says, and chuckles -- he's known for publishing harsh literary criticism. "At first, getting e-mail delights you: 'Oh, they're reading, someone's thinking about it!' But every once in a while I look at an e-mail and say, 'Well, here's someone determined to push me off track.' "
So, lightning struck, the Internet died and Kirn went searching for access. He found it, at a coffee shop downtown, plugged in, began to write; as he did, the watchers showed their human faces. "Literally, while I was writing, the town eccentrics were looking over my shoulder, asking about what I was writing, listening to my explanations, offering their two cents," Kirn says. "It had gotten around town pretty quickly that what Walter was doing inside his house could be viewed easily on a computer. I thought, 'This is more interactivity than I can stand!' But it was interesting too."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Eyeing and spying love
A sample from "The Unbinding," an online novel by Walter Kirn published in installments at Slate.com:
Big news from Sabrina: I have another stalker. His name is Kent Selkirk, he lives across the courtyard, he drives an older black Ford mini-pickup with bumper stickers proclaiming that he's a Democrat, a paintballer, and an organ donor, and on Wednesday I got a weird anonymous note quoting a diary the guy's been writing about some tricky scheme of his to go through my file at AidSat, where he works (you know: "AidSat -- Always at your Side"), and use the info inside it to seduce me.
The funny thing, and the thing that makes me think the letter-writer must know both of us, is that I've been eyeing this
Which all adds up to a favor, little sister. Is there somebody clever in your tech department, some nerd you can maybe bat your lovely lashes at, who can use this guy's name to find out what he's been up to before he spotted yours truly and fell in love? It's pure high school, I realize, and totally unfair. But it might be good for [grins]. Maybe that isn't how computers work, though. I wouldn't know. I'm just a facialist.