i read your little internet novels
it's all very gothic up in here
(Horace Walpole by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1756)
In the current zeitgeist, mostly meaning publishing and media Twitter, Internet Novel is a misnomer, a false-cognate, because the two novels put forward by that very zeitgeist as being emblematic of the form and genre aren’t really about the internet. Fake Accounts and No One Is Talking About This are primarily concerned with social media, mostly meaning Twitter, and its effects on the mores of white upwardly mobile media writers.
Usually, so it goes in the Internet Novel, these effects are for the most part negative. Online, communication is more subterranean and referential than before. We communicate by way of thin, tensile epigrams. In memes and ASCII drawings. Online, we bathe in the glow of each other’s affect. Perpetual access to knowledge has turned everyone into a pedant. Did you see that tweet? Did you see that video? I sort of read an article. We are distracted. We are unable to be political. We are unable to effect change. To save the world. To imagine a world in which people do or do not wash their feet. We read Reddit. We scroll our For You pages. We watch a video and wonder how it ended up recommended to us. We watch that Netflix show. We do not watch that Netflix show because the star tweeted something bad once. We laugh about media people getting fired for old tweets. We marvel at how anyone could fail to delete their tweets before getting a new job. We nervously search our tweets for bad politics or for things that might, in the next five to ten weeks, be considered bad politics. We wish we had better digital hygiene. We tweet about our cardio. We take pictures of books we read. We do not read. We tweet instead of reading. Instead of writing. We get into a Twitter fight with a man who looks like a big toe because while we were reading he interpreted our tweets as being a reference to him. We do not think that being online is healthy. We distrust what being online has done to us. We pantingly paw at our screens.
In the view of the Internet Novel, the internet is a corrupting force, persuasive and totalizing in its effects. This to me is one of the more Gothic impulses in the Internet Novel. In Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, this impulse is partly described in the following formulation:
In more general terms, the guilt which underlies the gothic and motivates its plots is the guilt of the revolutionary haunted by the (paternal) past which he has been striving to destroy; and the fear that possesses the gothic and motivates its tone is the fear that in destroying the old ego-ideals of Church and State, the West has opened a way for the inruption of darkness: for insanity and the disintegration of the self. Through the pages of the gothic romance, the soul of Europe flees its own darker impulses.
And then again:
The gothic felt for the first time the pastness of the past; and though it did not, like the later novels of Manzoni and Scott, attempt with scholarly accuracy to document that difference, it tried to give some sense of it: the sense of something lapsed or outlived or irremediably changed.
The characteristics of the Gothic novel were more or less established in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: a decaying setting that represents a corrupt (and often Catholic) past, an atmosphere of ambient dread and suspense, supernatural phenomena, a maiden in distress fleeing an awful man (often a would-be rapist or tyrannical dude-bro), heightened emotion, etc. In Fiedler’s view, the Gothic with all of its gloom and abjection and haunted manors full of moaning ghosts and bleeding portraits is the result of a failed flight of independence.
The Internet Novel captures some of the weird Gothic horror that white people have come, by way of their new digital Calvinism, to accept as being inherent to digital life. The Internet Novel is a Gothic novel both because it is preoccupied with a past it considers itself both superior and inferior to and also because it is unable to shake the sense that in trying to destroy that past, it has instead become vulnerable to the darkest impulses of the culture it seeks to flee. In some sense, the aestheticized past of the Internet Novel isn’t meatspace so much as an earlier, more democratic internet. What is marked as “offline” in the Internet Novel isn’t even really offline. It’s just the slightly less online of 2005 or 2007. But that’s maybe a point too fine to argue.
Let’s get into the gig.
Fake Accounts is critic Lauren Oyler’s debut novel. It opens in that tense, nervy period between Trump’s election and inauguration when it seemed that all of America was seized with the Spirit of 1776 and/or 1903 and/or 1965 and/or 2011 and/or 2012 and/or 2015. People poured from their comfortable homes into the streets of the nation’s capital to protest the ascension of fascism while wearing their pink hats and waving their signs. But the novel isn’t about that. Instead, the novel is animated by the keen awareness of the extent to which all of that noise and tumult and political agita were mere posture. Or, if not posture, then certainly scannable as such. The narrator of Oyler’s novel is very, to use the modern parlance, sharp. Her perception bathes the whole novel in a patina of, what, knowing? Irony? It’s hard to say because so much of the book’s posture is predicated on short-circuiting any critical apparatus that would describe and evaluate it.
The narrator discovers at the opening of the novel that her boyfriend is running a conspiracy alt account, the kind of hub that flared brightly into the public consciousness over the last couple of years as the mainstream became aware of the reverse world that runs parallel to the internet most of us inhabit. What the narrator does with this information is decide to break up with the guy. She’s unhappy in their relationship, kind of, and almost for want of a reason, she locks in on this as a sign, not that he’s evil, but that he’s maybe kind of deceptive. She goes to the march, meets up with a gay friend, and on her way home, she finds out that her boyfriend is dead.
Our narrator then takes the money that the boyfriend’s mom sent her and heads not to his funeral but to Berlin, where they met. The novel then turns collagic in its mode as it delivers the backstory of the narrator’s relationship with the dead boyfriend and also her life in Berlin: we get fragments, we get fragments about fragments, we get a weird chorus of ex-boyfriends. In a move not dissimilar from one of those videos with titles like 50 Years of Underwear in America, Fake Accounts (starting somewhere near the end of the first section through to the end of the novel) is like a timelapse of styles in American literature. It’s bold and impressive and kind of ironic. I mean, it wasn’t moving because Oyler is so determined to make you feel stupid for feeling anything at all, but it was a masterstroke of technical virtuosity. She can fucking write. Her talent is astonishing. Both the flexibility of her idiom and the quicksilver flourishes of her mind are on full display in this novel, and she has the kind of churlish native fluency in the mores of the media class that made H.L. Mencken kind of a menace back in the day. It’s amazing, and so much fun, even if it is emotionally vacuous.
The idea running through the moral center of the book is that the internet, specifically social media, renders us abject. Renders us unable to connect with the people in front of us. The internet bends our behaviors in ways strange and embarrassing to think about. The internet turns us all into circus monkeys, doing flips and shrieking for little peanuts of attention and praise. Even those of us whose who stake our lives on art-making are warped by the curious gravity of being online. The dark web that the narrator’s boyfriend inhabits at the start of the novel is a Gehenna we recognize. It’s full of fascists and Nazis and people who don’t believe in vaccines and who think that the government is a secret operation run by the illuminati. The narrator operates in the digital spaces we recognize as being normal, neutral. Blogs and Twitter and the media elite, etc. But to hear the narrator report her experience there, and the ways it shattered her sense of social connection and self-efficacy, one comes to realize that she too operates in a Gehenna. That is to say that there are no good places on the internet. That the internet itself is a disfiguring social carcinoid.
In Fiedler, it’s just this kind of Faustian bargain with the internet that is a hallmark of the Gothic:
Anyone who, in full consciousness, surrenders the hope of heaven (what everyone says heaven is) for the endurance of hell (what everyone knows hell to be) has entered into a pact with Satan; and the very act, therefore, of writing a gothic novel rather, than a sentimental one, of devoting a long fiction to terror rather than love, is itself a Faustian commitment.
The narrator of Fake Accounts moves in a fallen world, lost between digital mores she cannot resist and a physical world she feels increasingly alienated from. She resents her impulse to turn her life into things to be shared online. She resents her life for being something that eludes her attempts at meaning-making. She describes her social interactions in the meatspace with detached, piercing irony. Aware at all times of the performance that is sociality. She can’t turn off the part of her that wonders if everything is just pointless. But despite all of that, Fake Accounts is more a novel about a person looking at the internet than it is a replication of the feeling of being plugged-in. It’s almost as if the book couldn’t shrug off its irony and self-awareness enough to just let go and sink into the overwhelming torrent of digital life.
I found Fake Accounts weirdly chaste in its effects re: online life. To borrow a phrase from ye olden times: there was a lot of telling re: the internet and its effects. And, okay, that in itself is kind of an effect of being online. The way we’re always narrating and unintentionally presenting ourselves. The internet’s muted, mediated quality in Fake Accounts is in some ways a replication of the current dominant aesthetic premise that rules Twitter: the mediated experience. I mean, what is life under the algorithm if not a life ordered for you, presented to you. But there I go talking about Calvinism again.
Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This, however, is utterly experiential. Orgiastic even. The novel’s first mode is a series of almost non-sequitur fragments, observations torn from digital life that sometimes coalesce into arcs that last for a few pages, but for the most part, Lockwood grinds you down with the sheer volubility of onlineness. It feels like an attack. The prose is Delphic, lyric, mysterious and ironic. Profane and elegiac. Lockwood is fucking hilarious. And the humor that erupts from her manic juxtapositions is remarkable, stunning. You feel that kind of insight that is native to a really bad migraine. When you might think, between pulses of agony, that cows are the dogs of horses or how mammals are named for boobs.
There’s this moment in No One Is Talking About This, where the disembodied we cries out: “Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.” Which made me giggle, and also think of Fiedler’s idea that the Gothic (and in this case, the internet’s fragmentary assault on our psyches) is a simulation of a danse macabre in lieu of sexual gratification, which seemed to me to describe the whole mode of the first front of Lockwood’s novel:
The titillation of sex denied, it offers its readers a vicarious participation in a flirtation with death—approach and retreat, approach and re- treat, the fatal orgasm eternally mounting and eternally checked. More than that, however, the gothic is the product of an implicit aesthetic that replaces the classic concept of nothing-in-excess with the revolutionary doctrine that nothing succeeds like excess.
There are moments, glitch-like, when self-awareness emerges in No One is Talking About This, moments when the central character seems to be aware of the extent to which her behavior has been corrupted and at times co-opted by the internet, by The Portal. And you’re aware of how sad that is. How pathetic she feels there, twitching on the floor with her ass in the air after burning her foot on a heated towel rack. Or, how she twitches into nonsense at bars and parties and on panels, seemingly issuing forth the voice of the portal. There’s even a chorus-like we that seems to speak for the collective fragmentary consciousness of the terminally online. There’s something Whitmanic in Lockwood’s rollicking vernacular. Something egalitarian in her project even as she depicts a person who is uniquely poisoned by The Portal.
Lockwood’s novel then fractures open in the back half as the central character is brought low quickly by a family emergency and all of the fizz and kinetic chatter recede to the human meatspace drama. It’s a poignant enough differential, and it preempts and defuses criticism in a different way. It’s a gesture that seems to say that all that internet stuff matters little in the face of a singular beautiful human life, incorruptible by the portal because of the gravity of its circumstances. This too has a Whitmanic energy about it. And in a way, it’s a stark contrast to the cool digital Calvinism that animates much of Oyler’s novel.
But for most part, the Internet Novel is preoccupied with the degradation of society at the hands of the online. The remaking of the world into a series of psychically linked quick-twitch fibers that fire at the slightest provocation.
We ran to the internet to be free. To escape the narrowness of our contexts and circumstances, the new democracy of it all, the wide-open space where we were all free to be who we wanted to be. We bought in. Big. Culturally, societally, into what the internet promised. But what pervades the Internet Novel, really the Social Media novel, is a terror and guilt that in trying to shuck off our regional accents and gas station diets, we’ve all become a sea of beige vegan automatons.
The Internet Novel believes that getting online ruined us somehow, socially, personally. It’s that projected sense of guilt and corruption that makes it feel so Gothic. That and its preoccupation with the old way it used to be. The characters of our current Internet Novels are old enough to have had a pre-life before their flight from meatspace into the digital wide-open. It was then that the Faustian bargain was struck. It was then that the Internet Novel emerged as a particular variety of Gothic fiction.
Or, in Fiedler’s kind of amazing summation of the whole project:
How could one tell where the American dream ended and the Faustian nightmare began; they held in common the hope of breaking through all limits and restraints, of reaching a place of total freedom where one could with impunity deny the Fall, live as if innocence rather than guilt were the birthright of all men
In the end, I’m not totally sure I believe in the Internet Novel as an aesthetic project. It all feels very caucasian to me. There are no black people in these novels. And what black people do exist only exist as superficial spoilers to liberal complacency. The modes and mores depicted in both novels are almost entirely to do with white people in the media and in the arts. And the depravity that each novel sees as the moral and social endpoint to online life also seem particularly couched in the decay of certain white liberal values. I mean, I don’t expect Patricia Lockwood or Lauren Oyler to write about BlackTwitter. I don’t ever want to see Oyler’s take on Hoteps or AKAs. I don’t want to hear what Patricia Lockwood has to offer about Barbs and the Bardi Gang. But it seems to me that these two talented writers captured not a shard of the internet and have been given credit, through no fault of their own, for snagging the whole thing. Or at least telling us about how it is our generation moves through digital space.
But, like, I don’t feel utterly abject for using Twitter or Instagram. I don’t find my behavior in meatspace warped beyond recognition. When I’m with friends, I don’t feel the lunar gravity of my phone. I don’t feel that I should be elsewhere doing something else when I’m online. And when I do feel that, I just go watch Law and Order. I don’t feel the weird, corrupting totality of the internet life as depicted in these novels.
Honestly, the more I think about it, the more the internet in these novels starts to feel like that one awkward white guy who knows he can’t dance but tries to let you know that he knows it so that he can bop along in the background at the party just the same. It feels like one of White Media’s greater farces that they have deceived us into thinking that the internet as described and proscribed in these novels is a thing that is actually worth arguing over. Aesthetically. I mean, really, think about it. The huge tracts of digital life that these novels don’t touch. None of the transformative capacity or will to change that animates so much of online life for black and brown and queer people exists in these novels. For some of us, the democratic dream and the populist impulse of digital life is alive. Not perfect, no. Not entirely democratic even. But it’s still there. Singing.
The internet saved my life when I was younger. I slithered out of the dark and into the bright Gehenna of message boards and online roleplaying games and chatrooms. Bit by bit, I built up a self. And it saved me. Time and again, it saved me. Because while the world I lived in told me one thing about myself, the greater world, told me I could be something else.
To be clear, the internet is a sewer full of Nazis and white supremacists and fascists and white people who delight in trying to put you into your place. It’s full of mansplainers and transphobes and TERFs and bots, so many bots. To go viral is to subject oneself to a kind of spiritual decay. All of that is true. The current Internet Novel presents us as projections of the Internet’s, specifically Social Media, darker impulses. It is dystopic in its moral vision. I guess all I mean to say is that I’m waiting for an Internet Novel that opens its mouth and speaks with voice of my portal.
These lines blew my mind: "In the end, I’m not totally sure I believe in the Internet Novel as an aesthetic project. It all feels very caucasian to me. There are no black people in these novels. And what black people do exist only exist as superficial spoilers to liberal complacency." It seems like the Internet Novel is more innovative in terms of the form and rethinking the novel in general, but when it comes to content, it merely reproduces some of the traditional things in the American novel, where black people exist in the periphery. It would be interesting to see what sort of criticism emerges around this form.
"I’m waiting for an Internet Novel that opens its mouth and speaks with voice of my portal." It sounds like you've got the seeds of that right here, in the preceding paragraphs. And I bet we'd all love to read it.