Tuesday, April 18, 2006

If Big Brother had a blog, he would be its webmaster


Tuesday April 18, 2006

If Big Brother had a blog, he would be its webmaster

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

Lightning struck near the tiny valley town of Livingston, Mont., the other day, frying a radio tower and, for a few long hours, plunging some of its 7,000 residents into an Internet-less world. "I wasn't above having thoughts of God's wrath," says Walter Kirn, one of those residents, a novelist and critic who lives by himself on 500 acres of hay and roving herds of antelope. The laptop sitting on his kitchen table rendered useless, Kirn tried typing into his cellphone, then drove through town, trolling for anybody with an unbroken connection. A segment of his newest novel was set to be published in a matter of hours, and it wasn't even written.

Kirn, given his pastoral surroundings, might seem an unlikely candidate to be writing an "online novel." But the author of "Thumbsucker" and "Mission to America" is hardly a transcendentalist loner, either -- he's well-connected in New York publishing circles and isn't averse to attention, having written, for instance, an article for GQ about his experimentation with Ritalin. When the editor of the online magazine Slate approached Kirn last December and asked if he'd be willing to write a novel, posting chapters to Slate as he went, Kirn says he warily agreed.

"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.

Meet Sabrina, Kent's comely, single neighbor -- and an AidSat subscriber. Kent's interested, Kent has access and Kent can't resist doing a little background research. But Sabrina notices being noticed and calls upon her own connections with their own computers. We watch Sabrina watch Kent watch Sabrina; we, the readers, are implicated in the watching. The story unfolds through "found documents," such as Kent's blog-like online diary. "I decided this month to write it all down," Kent explains. "Everything, my morning and my nights, and to file it for perpetual safekeeping in the great electronic library of lives. I'm an interesting person, I've come to see. We all are. We don't deserve to disappear."

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 Illinois senate campaign, the one Barak Obama won, and references to the Bush family. But most of the time, reality outpaced my ability to create fiction from it. I wish there was a bigger audience for this kind of thing, I think it could be very exciting."

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."



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 Kent since he moved in here. He seems like my type: a fouled-up jock with brains who goes around wearing flip flops and pocket T-shirts and a ridiculous pair of thick dark shades that wrap around his head like plastic bat wings and emphasize the squareness of his huge skull. He reminds me of one of my crushes at U Mass, that guy who supposedly date-raped all the swimmers but wriggled off because of his top tennis ranking, except that he's less obviously psychotic in terms of his walk and posture and general aura. If he passes a dog, he pets it just like I would, and I've seen him hold doors for old ladies in his unit and carry a pregnant Hispanic woman's grocery bags. He also happens to be about half-gorgeous, with one of those partly caved-in boxers' noses sprinkled across the bridge with sandy freckles.

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.

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