The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific

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

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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?

It’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.

For 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?

In 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.

It’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.

“Who Will There Be to Talk To?”

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(Photo courtesy the author. The author’s father is in the center, flanked by his brothers.)

My father is a quiet man. He is eighty-eight and, characteristic of his generation, stoic. He comes from German stock and I think he was indoctrinated with the nineteenth-century Teutonic notion that discourse upsets the digestive system. He has never had, to my knowledge, a digestive problem, so presumably the practice has served him well. It came as a great surprise, consequently, to learn that he was writing his memoirs.

I was returning home to Maine and called my father during a layover at the Detroit airport. I’d been away a week. My father lives alone, only a few steps from my door. He gets lonely when I am out of town. I was expecting his lonely or his bored voice to answer the phone. He picked up. “I’ve got a little project going on,” he said, sounding full of joy, and perhaps even excitement. “I’ve got a manuscript I’m working on.” My father finished high school–barely–went to war, returned from war, went to work at International Harvester in Indiana, retired, and eventually moved close to me after my mother, his wife of fifty-three years, died suddenly three years ago. He is not a writer, though his camp letters to me many years ago betrayed an ability to fashion the written word in a surprisingly vigorous manner, particularly when stacked up against the troubled verb conjugations of his spoken words. “What do you mean, Dad, a manuscript?” I asked.

“I’m writing the story of my childhood, of three brothers growing up in Ft. Wayne during the depression.”

“That’s fantastic.”

“My days just fly by,” he continued. “I sit down at the computer and start writing and before you know it, the day is gone. I even forget to eat sometimes!” He laughed at himself over this.

A few years ago I began feeding dad books I thought he might enjoy. There was no reason to think he would take my advice and read them. I have no childhood memory of seeing him with a book. He had magazines and would flip through those, and he’d skim the newspaper, but no books. On a hunch, I loaned him Paul Theroux’s book about exploring the islands of the south Pacific, The Happy Isles of Oceania. He devoured the book and asked for more. I gave him another Theroux. Again, he tore through it, as he did most of the books I pushed his way, chiefly adventure and travel books. My mother used to say, “Your father is a dreamer.”  She laughed at this, but was in essence complaining. He had, over the years, dreamed of homesteading in Alaska, sailing around the world, exploring remote and lost islands, as well as many lesser adventures. To her point, he never seemed settled, was always a pulsing nerve shy of rest. I wondered if books had suddenly allowed him to exercise his dreams; if, like a pacing dog, he could now just stop, book in lap, relax. I stocked a tailor-made library for a man who had suddenly discovered the world of the book.

But somewhere along the line, the enthusiasm for books left him. It took a couple of years, but when it happened it happened with the same abruptness with which it began. It was as if a switch, suddenly turned on, had just as suddenly been flipped off. I kept bringing him books, but he had lost what he’d so startlingly discovered. To this day, now a half dozen years later, he laments the loss. “I just can’t concentrate,” he recently confessed.

“So, dad. Am I going to get to read this manuscript of yours?” I asked from the airport.

“Oh, yes. I want you to,” he said. “But I need an editor. Can you help me?”

I assured him I would help and that I looked forward to reading his memoir.

“My what? Memoir?”

“Yes,” I said. “Memoir. It’s a way of telling your life story. I think that’s what you’re working on.”

“They make memoirs into books?”

“Yes, in fact, it’s a very popular genre right now.” I winced at the word genre.        

“I want to write like Mark Twain,” he said. “I want to use normal words like normal people, people like me, use.”

I told him I understood, but mentioned that Twain had an impressive command of the language. This gave him pause. “Regardless, Dad, just write the story the way it sounds best to you,” I said. “If you do that, you’ll be fine.”

I stopped in to see him as soon as I got home. He was bent over his computer keyboard, hunting and pecking, papers on the floor, a cold cup of coffee on the kitchen table. He looked up and acknowledged me. He didn’t ask about my trip. He didn’t ask how I was. He asked me to read something and handed me a page. (Subtlety is an attribute my father never managed to develop.) “The Great Depression had its grip on us,” it began. The story continued:

Life became a struggle for everyone. There were few jobs to be had, if any. Dad spent many days looking for work of any kind and would come home discouraged only to start out the next day and try again. He got lucky one day and landed a job hauling coal to homes and unloading it. He would save his last load for our house. Mom would have a hot supper ready for him and he would eat while still covered with coal dust. Mom would unload the coal, shoveling it down a shoot into the basement. We would watch through the frosted window. I felt sorry for her but we couldn’t help. We were too small.

“It’s a wonderful image, Dad,” I said. “Your father covered in coal dust, eating, while grandma shovels coal into the basement. The brothers watching through a frosted window. Very nice.” He smiled and handed me another page.

Looking back at the thirties, in perspective, people would say that we were poor and maybe we were, but we didn’t know it. We had a lot of company and thought it was the norm. I wore Ralph’s clothes and when I got done with them they went to Ken, if still wearable. We were great fixers, even glued rubber soles on our shoes to extend their use. Even so, it was a simple life. In those days there was no refrigeration. In the summer the ice man would come in a horse-drawn wagon with a canvas over a big block of ice. He would chip off a piece for our ice box and with tongs carry it into the house. While he was gone we would gather up the loose chips and suck them. In the winter we had a box on the window sill and kept our food there simply raising the window to reach it.

And so the stories flowed: The brothers running catfish lines on Lake James at night. A beloved family dog poisoned.  A rifle accidentally discharged. A near drowning. Motorcycle accidents. I was not familiar with many of them, my father being, as I stated, of that silent generation. Suddenly he was an open gushing spigot. Then, just like the reading, and without warning, the spigot clamped shut.

“This writing business is hard work,” dad complained one afternoon as I was visiting him. I acknowledged that it is, indeed, hard work. “I don’t know how you do it everyday, write like you do.” I joked that there are more days than not when I wonder the same thing. He had abruptly ended his story as the three brothers, now grown, headed off to war, “tapped on the shoulder by Uncle Sam,” as he put it. “Are you going to tell the story of the war?” I asked. He said no, that he did not want to “open that can of worms.” He stated that he had successfully kept that experience under wraps and intended to continue doing just that. I said that sometimes writing is like drawing from a well and if you rest for a time the well refills. Maybe, I told him, he’d someday want to write more stories. He said he didn’t think so. He has more stories, he admitted. But, he confessed, he didn’t want to carry on. And that was that.

There is one line in his memoir I find particularly poignant. It is a clunky line that I wanted to fix but resisted. My father and his brother Ken had recently been talking, recollecting stories for the memoir. My father writes, “Just the other day Ken said, ‘When one of us is gone who will there be to talk to, that not having been there will understand?’” To which my father simply replies, “How true.” It is, in some fashion, the question every writer asks. How true.

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