This week, Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor exchange ideas around book promotion, materials of writing, and the devolution of the author. This post is a response to Josh’s post from yesterday.
“The artist makes the tool until the tool makes the artist”—this is undoubtedly true, and it complicates the argument I was trying to advance with my perhaps somewhat pat examples, but I’m not sure that my entire line of thinking is negated by the admission that the relationship between the user and what he uses is one of reciprocal modification. I don’t share your sense that the computer has an ineluctable aura of “business” about it. Growing up, there was almost always a computer in my house. I can say with something like complete confidence that I was the first of my childhood friends to ever go online—onto Compuserve, via a 14400 baud modem that we hooked into the house’s only phone line. I also played a lot of video games as a kid, mostly on consoles, because we only had one computer—it lived in the family room—and my father was very wary of any activity that might damage it (keyboards don’t stand up to punishment quite the same way Nintendo controllers do). Later, when I got my own computer in my very own room, the feeling was not unlike getting my first stereo, or, for that matter, my first little writing desk. What I mean is that it didn’t feel limiting, it felt freeing.
Here was something that was all mine that I could use however and for whatever I wanted to without asking permission, waiting my turn, or having someone look over my shoulder while I did it. The computer was an extension of the bedroom itself—another space, this one virtual, over which I had exclusive dominion, could personalize after my own taste, and which expanded the range of work and play activities available to me. I’m not sure I’ve ever quite gotten over that feeling. I know so many writers who say that they can’t work at home, so they go to coffee shops, libraries, even pay to rent office space—this is a problem I’ve never had. When Amanda and I got this apartment back in February it came with a home office. This is probably the first time in my writing life that there hasn’t been a direct sightline to my workspace from my bed. A good thing, to be sure, but it’s taken a while to get used to.
None of which is to say that I’m unambivalent about the computer, only my ambivalence locates itself elsewhere than where yours seems to. My last year of high school I spent a lot of time online—in part because I was feeling very done with my hometown and in part because better technology made more things possible and I was interested in seeing what they were. I IM’ed with people I could have just as easily been on the phone with, I hung around Grateful Dead message boards looking for people to trade tapes with (cassette tapes!—sent through the U.S. mail). I downloaded lots of dirty pictures, and I played a massive-multiplayer online role playing game, where you had to team up with strangers you met in the virtual fantasy world and fight an unending battle against whatever was around. This, to me, is an example of “the tool making the user”—I felt it and could acknowledge it even as it was taking place—but I’ve switched my “user” back in for your “artist” because I’m not sure whether the re-making effect ever extended to my art. If I were writing a memoir, I might speculate at length about the effect of the computer on various aspects of my life (sexual, social, etc.) but suffice here to say that once I got to college, re-situated in a place and with a group of people I liked, whose artistic and political interests I either shared or adopted, I stopped doing most of the aforementioned online activities, because the point of all that shit had been to assuage loneliness and/or pass time, and now I had places to go and people to see.
All of which, I guess, is to say, that the computer has never seemed to me to have a developmental role in the way I make or think about my art. Rather, art is—among many other things—the arena in which I can process/analyze/interrogate the role the computer plays in the other areas of my life. Which brings us around to your book. Two of the stories in Four New Messages are explicitly concerned with the impact of the way the virtual and meatspace worlds inform each other. In “Emission,” the main character, a drug dealer, does something sleazy at a house party, which gets converted into salacious web gossip, gunks up his Google-ability, and basically ruins his life. Which is truly saying something since his life was something of a ruin to start with. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Richard Monomian’s original transgression is in any sense redeemed or excused, but as the story progresses there is a sense that the punishment has outmatched the original crime. Though of course “the punishment” itself doesn’t seem to be purposefully delivered—it’s an unplanned side-effect of the reporting party’s use of the web as reporting medium. In “Sent” there’s a kind of reciprocal feedback between the virtual and the physical. That novella opens with what might be my favorite episode from this collection, and one of my favorite pieces of yours in general: the history of a bed from the time it was a tree in a forest, hundreds of years ago in Russia, taken through its chopping and carving and generations of ownership until it finally ends up as the “stage” for a cheap amateur (or “amateur-style”) porno that gets posted on the internet, where it’s viewed by an American manboy of our own era, who becomes so obsessed with the “starlet” he watches on the virtual screen that he decides to try and track her down in real life.
But all four stories engage with aspects of “the way we live now.” “The College Borough” is as fine a satire of creative writing-as-academic-discipline as I think I’ve ever seen. “McDonald’s” attempts to resist the total penetration of our lives and selves by branding language/ideology: it goes on a kind of hunger strike from the corporate lexicon, and delirium ensues. I love the book, in no small part because it feels so straightforward—not light, per se, but certainly more inviting than your previous novel, Witz. Which, for the record, I loved very much—it was a great challenge and pleasure, on so many levels—but going from Witz to Four New Messages reminded me of DeLillo going from Underworld to The Body Artist and then Cosmopolis. Did it feel good, with the Great Big Book behind you, to get back to the story/novella form? How did you go about gathering these disparate tales together around their several central themes? If I was going to be a total shit about it, and entreat you to tell me, in your own words, what this book is “about,” what would you say? Actually, it occurs to me that I did get you to do this once before—when you were working on “Emission” and we were driving back from the reading at the Jewish book store in Massachusetts, I remember you describing the piece to me before I had ever read a draft of it, and that you said your intention was, in a limited but real sense, pedagogical. That the story would be offered in the tradition of the advice-narrative, in which the fiction illustrates a familiar contemporary problem, to which it offers both a solution and a moral. Do you still feel that “Emission” works this way? Would you say that the book as a whole does, or that it can? Why isn’t your book called “How Should a Person Be?,” or since that’s taken, “How a Person Should Be”?