The Last Novel

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The History of Humans is the History of Technology: The Millions Interviews Robin Sloan

Robin Sloan is the kind of writer/thinker you want to take out for a beer and ply with questions. About writing. About reading. About life.

His novel with the glow-in-dark cover, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, came out in October, though it actually started years ago as a short story on his website. Of course, the seeds for it likely started back even farther, during his years working at Poynter, Current TV, and Twitter.

I’ve inhaled almost everything Robin has written: Annabel Scheme, a novella; “Fish,” a thoughtful essay in app form; and, of course the new novel. I grew even more intrigued when I learned Annabel Scheme was initially a Kickstarter project (you’ll hear more about that in the interview).

Robin is frightfully creative and incredibly open-minded. He also happens to tell really good stories. Below is our conversation, conducted over email, about stories, technology, and giving up the iPhone,

The Millions: You call yourself a “media inventor” and it’s quickly obvious you have a deep appreciation for history. What’s your belief about what the past has to teach us? Have you always been so fond of books?

Robin Sloan: Yes, I’ve always loved books. I was a kid who spent a lot of time in the library, scouring the stacks for the next installment of whatever fantasy series I was tearing through. But I’ve always loved technology, too: when I wasn’t at the library, I was planted in front of my family’s Mac Plus, writing or programming or slowly surfing the nascent Internet. I’m not convinced that one of those worlds is the past and the other is the future. I think both are vital components of our very capacious future-present, and both have been for a long time. In any case, I’ve always immersed myself in both, side by side. I think a lot of people have.

TM: What’s the order of your writing adventures: “Fish,” the Penumbra story, Annabel Scheme, the new novel? And what’s the single most important thing you’ve learned in that journey?

RS: It goes like this: “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” the short story, Annabel Scheme the Kickstarter project, Scheme on Kindle (and free on my website, “Fish” the app, Penumbra the novel. Along the way, going from blog posts to short stories to novellas to novels, I’ve learned how to suppress the feeling that I’ve come to recognize as “the paranoia of the screen” — the creeping sense that your reader is about to lose interest, close the tab, and never return.

TM: You found a community of readers in a rather untraditional manner. How did that happen? (I’m thinking particularly about Annabel Scheme and your Kickstarter project to make a print version of the novella).

RS: I’ve been working in public for years now, sharing inchoate ideas and notes on process along with finished work, and when you do that, you tend to pick up people who stick with you. I’d argue, though, that the manner is not particularly “untraditional” these days. In fact, I think it’s becoming the go-to model for people building new careers and communities.

Twitter is a big part of it; there’s something about the way people find and follow each other over there that seems to support this kind of slow, organic, durable growth over time.

And maybe that’s the key: it has been slow. I started my first blog (Snarkmarket, written with Matt Thompson and Tim Carmody) back in 2003, so, if between then and now, I’ve found just one new person every day…well, that adds up to a lot of people!

TM: Tell me more about your decision to release Annabel Scheme under a Creative Commons license. That’s a big deal for a writer — or any creative. Why did you want to do that?

RS: Oh, that’s easy: because about the coolest thing I can imagine is other people taking my stories and making them their own. In other words: fan fiction. And not just fiction, but creation of every kind: drawings, costumes, games…everything. Now, a Creative Commons license is not strictly necessary; people create things based on copyrighted media all the time. But a CC license can be like a welcome mat — a neon sign that says “open for remix.”

In the case of Annabel Scheme, I was so serious about it that I allocated a few thousand dollars from the Kickstarter project into a “remix fund” to support some of the early projects. For example, a 3D artist named Emily Cooper rendered these postcards from the alternate-reality San Franciscos from the story and got paid to do it. Pretty cool.

TM: Penumbra started with a short story hosted on your website. How did it then evolve?

RS: It was clear, pretty much immediately after posting it, that “Penumbra” was resonating in a special way. It found its audience quickly. That’s a virtue of working on the web, I think: you have access to so much data about how a piece of writing is doing; how it’s being shared; how its audience is changing over time. The data is not the whole story, of course — there are plenty of crappy, cynical blog posts with millions of views — but it does help when you’re a writer just starting out, trying to figure out how to allocate a finite number of keystrokes.

TM: When you’re building tension in a novel — as you did in Penumbra — the stakes get higher in terms of making it worth it for the reader. I was getting nervous but I felt like, in the end, you nailed it. Were you worried about that at all?

RS: Midway through the writing of Penumbra, when the stakes and the resolution were still up in the air, I decided there would be no fistfights; no guns; no deaths. It’s easy to raise the stakes by putting characters in mortal danger, right? And for some stories, it’s absolutely appropriate. But my own life hasn’t featured many gun battles or assassinations, and it has seemed reasonably dramatic to me — so I figured there must be some other way.

Now, judging from the reviews, more than a few people wanted more action. Maybe a darker edge. I’m okay with that; writing would be boring if everybody reacted exactly the same way. Personally, I like the fact that the story’s urgency comes from quieter quarters, with no sniper rifles required.

TM: There are very few people writing, as you ultimately have, about the relationship between humans and technology, even though it’s something so familiar to us. Why do you think people fear it so much?

RS: I think a lot of the fear is based on a misapprehension: that the history of humans (or books, or food, or…) is separate from the history of technology. It’s not. It’s one history, one story — and when you realize that, it tends to defuse the whole debate. So you ignore the “camps” entirely, and turn your attention instead to the figures wandering between them, or better yet, away from them — the pilgrims just cresting the far-off ridgeline.

I don’t mean to sound techno-utopian — I’m decidedly not — but the simple fact is that everything we cherish today was, at some point, a strange and challenging invention. Printed books are no exception. So I think it’s really important that people who have strong beliefs about books, about attention, about life itself, ought to be out there inventing things, and embedding those beliefs in their inventions.

TM: How much research did you have to do on the inner workings of Google and data visualization and complex book scanners? Are these familiar terrains to you? Somehow you made those topics far less intimidating.

RS: I didn’t have to do much special research, because I’ve been fascinated by places like Google and disciplines like data visualization for years. This book was an opportunity to bundle up those fascinations, all those years of scribbled notes, and turn it all into something I could share.

And I’m glad you found it interesting and approachable! That’s one of the best things a book can do, right? Provide a window into an otherwise strange, or even hostile-seeming, world.

TM: You chose not to include Acknowledgements in the book — and there’s a bit of a debate about that in the literary world. What was your reasoning? I’ll say that having the last echo of your book be your last lines (vs. a list of names) mattered more than I expected. Was that your intention?

RS: I’m glad it worked that way for you! Yes, it was definitely my intention. I have nothing against acknowledgments — certainly, there are many people to acknowledge for Penumbra’s creation (and I do that on the book’s web page — but in this particular case, I wanted readers to reach those last lines, and then simply close the book. I guess you could say I was trying to design a moment.

TM: Your book launch for Mr. Penumbra was an all-day event. Tell me how that came about and why you chose to interview the folks you did. You were promoting the new book, yes, but you had a bigger goal, too. Looking back, how do you think it went?

RS: When you write a book with “24-Hour” in the title, I think you’re obligated to do at least one 24-hour event, right? My collaborators at FSG and I all thought so. And there was just something over-the-top and appealing about the idea of a 24-hour livestream; like a strange modern telethon.

So my editor Sean McDonald and I brainstormed a dream team of writers, thinkers, and provocateurs from across a wide range of disciplines, then extended invitations. Almost everyone said yes, I think in part because they were intrigued by the format. Like: “This is just crazy enough to make me want to come over and see what the hell you’re doing.”

There were really two bigger goal behind the 24-hour livestream: First, I wanted to put these people in front of my audience — to celebrate them, and frankly to thank them for the influence many of them had (knowingly or not) on Penumbra. Second, I wanted produce an event that people from all across the world could enjoy. In general, I’m quite frustrated with the limited scale of most book events, so this was a chance to do something that was anchored and site-specific (thanks to the beautiful Center for Fiction in Manhattan) but also open and scalable (streamed online, for all to see).

TM: What are some of your favorite books?

RS: I’ve reread David Markson’s The Last Novel more than any other book. As a kid, I loved Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, and I find that they hold up with age (both theirs and mine). This summer I’ve been rereading Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It’s like the unadulterated The Little Prince — the real-life source material from which that story was distilled. Finally, I’m enjoying Aaron Diaz’s strange and beautiful Dark Science, which is still unfolding right now, page by page.

TM: I heard you have an old Nokia phone, which I love. Did you give up an iPhone? And you’re surviving okay?

RS: Ha, yes! I’m not just surviving, but thriving. For me, the iPhone had become a toxic compulsion. It had completed its invasion and occupation of my interstitial time — all those minutes riding the train, waiting in line, that used to be such fertile territory for daydreaming and storymaking. So I canceled my AT&T plan and switched to a bare-bones Nokia on a pay-as-you-go plan.

And sure enough: in the months since the liberation of my interstitial time, I’ve been daydreaming more, jotting down scraps of stories again.

Full disclosure, though: my iPhone does still work at home, on Wi-Fi. I couldn’t ditch the device entirely; I need to be able to try out apps like The Silent History.

TM: What would you say to other writers following in your footsteps — whether that’s experimenting with an online audience or working on making something that lasts?

RS: Two things.

The first: learn a bit of programming. Spend some time with Codecademy or Khan Academy’s programming course. The goal isn’t to become a programmer. Rather, it’s to understand what’s possible, and to experience what it feels like to make things happen with code. In the same way that the (then very new) feeling of the industrial city influenced so much great writing a hundred years ago, I think the (still very new) feeling of the programmable internet should be influencing more writing today.

The second things is going to sound like it contradicts the first, but it doesn’t really: focus on the text. I’ve enjoyed designing web pages and building iPhone apps, but I’m not convinced that any of it will be accessible for very long. That’s just the nature of the internet right now — we’re still in shakedown mode, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Plain text, though, already made it through the shakedown. Invest in text — learn to design sentences and build stories — and it’s a sure bet, no matter what the future holds.

Always Someone Turns Up: On Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas

Always someone turns up you never dreamt of. This is a refrain repeated frequently throughout Enrique Vila-Matas’s novel Dublinesque. It is a line originally found in the “Hades” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and is used there to describe an unnamed “lankylooking galoot.” That nameless minor character in Ulysses is often given the title “the Man in the Macintosh,” and he has become quite a mystery in Joyce scholarship over the years. He shows up in Joyce’s novel a handful of times, but scholars have never been able to agree upon his identity. Yes, always someone turns up you never dreamt of; and sometimes just as quickly he vanishes, remaining a ghost, a mystery. Literature has always been fascinated with these uncanny entrances and exits, the comings and goings that in life are so commonplace, but that, on the printed page, we often imbue with such significance. It is in mysteries such as these — in the catalogued coincidences and connections, the inquiries and epiphanies, that we seek out the patterns of life, create meaning in the chaos of existence, and confront and embody that Beckettian maxim: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

In the Internet age, after the heights of Joyce, and beyond the depths of Beckett, there is, it is sometimes argued, not much left to explore in literature. Story is suspect, for every story has already been told (or so the banal argument goes). Yet even if Enrique Vila-Matas can’t go on telling new stories, he’ll go on writing, mining the past to communicate the present; and we’re all the better off for it. The Spanish novelist is a master of that problematic enterprise of literature: the death-defying highwire act of telling the truth through lies, of invoking reality through fiction. In his newly translated novel, Dublinesque, successfully rendered into exquisite English by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean, Vila-Matas treks across the literary landscape from Joyce to Beckett, from Gutenberg to Google, rubbing one allusion up against another, and colliding both fictive and actual worlds.

Samuel Riba, the retired literary publisher who takes center stage in Dublinesque, is a character with an “exaggerated fanaticism for literature” who “has a tendency to read life like a literary text.” Therein lies a clue to reading the book: as the novel opens, life and text are already intertwined, confused, inseparable, and it only gets more complicated further on down the rabbithole.

In his retirement (and sobriety), Riba has retreated further into himself, sitting in front of his computer, Googling things for hours on end, like a Japanese hikikomori. He only ever really leaves this position in front of his computer at the behest of his wife, with whom he has a strained relationship that is only being strained further as he turns more inward and she turns more toward Buddhism, or in order to visit his parents and keep up the pretense that he is still a literary publisher (as he has chosen not to clue them in on his retirement). It is in one of these awkward visits with his parents that the idea of traveling to Dublin emerges.

Two years before the start of the novel Riba had a dream about that Irish city, and so when his mother accuses him of not having any plans, he “lets Dublin come to his rescue,” and makes up the lie that he’s been planning a trip there all along. Rather quickly he becomes obsessed with the idea of visiting that city of Joyce and Beckett, the Dedaluses and the Blooms, and mysterious men in macintoshes. He is determined to go to Dublin and, intentionally mirroring the funeral of Paddy Dignam in Joyce’s “Hades” episode, he will perform a funeral for the age of print, for “the Gutenberg galaxy,” as the digital age comes fully into being.

In many ways, both physical and metaphysical, literal and metaphorical, Dublinesque is haunted by ghosts. But these ghosts take different forms, and most often they are in the form of allusions. As Joyce writes in Ulysses, and Vila-Matas reiterates in Dublinesque:

What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy. One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.

Like the novel itself, Riba’s head is filled with ghosts — filled with the cobwebs of literary quotations, artistic allusions, bits of stories, trivia about the lives and works of authors and artists. Besides Joyce and Beckett, whose spirits remain a presence throughout the book, there are references to Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, George Perec, and Philip Larkin (whose poem “Dublinesque” provides the novel with its title), in addition to extensive mentions of the films of directors John Ford and David Cronenberg. These and many other artists haunt the book like specters. Riba’s obsession with artistic and literary trivia may not be quite as all-consuming as it is for David Markson’s Reader/Writer/Author/Novelist in Markson’s final four novels (The Notecard Quartet: Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel), but it is about on par. Indeed, David Markson seems like someone Riba would have wanted to add to his catalogue of published authors, had he not been retired: “Isn’t a literary publisher a ventriloquist who cultivates the most varied different voices through his catalogue?”

Coincidences abound from the very beginning of the novel, as there are countless threads connecting his parents to the text of Ulysses. Riba — and Vila-Matas- — weave a tangled web of allusions and intersections between literature and life, between fiction and reality. This is typical Enrique Vila-Matas territory: in his novels, reality and fiction are forever blended. Real people populate their pages as often as fictional ones, and a confusion between the two always invokes problems. Like Montano in Montano’s Malady, another Vila-Matas novel available in English translation, Samuel Riba has a kind of literature-sickness.

Bloomsday, a holiday that the book focuses on, embodies this mix of fictive and real elements. After all, it is a holiday in the real world, but celebrated because on that day, in a novel, a fictional character, based on a real person, wanders around Dublin, a real city, which the author, Joyce, wanted to capture so perfectly that if the city were to be wiped off the face of the planet it could be recreated using his novel. There is no better holiday for an Enrique Vila-Matas novel to engage itself with.

Furthering the insufficiency of reality, Riba constantly questions whether he is in a novel, dreading the possibility that he might be. He makes it abundantly clear at various points that “in no way does he want to live in a novel.” He may not want to be a character in literature but he keeps bringing up the possibility that he may very well be, a possibility he feels, even if he can’t quite explain it.

Surely it would be useless to explain that he’s not crazy, and that all that happens is that sometimes he senses or picks up too much, he detects realities no one else perceives.

But Riba’s greatest dread, the ultimate disappointment in his life, is that he hasn’t yet found the great writer of genius that he always assumed he would. Enter a mysterious figure. He first appears during the funeral procession for the Gutenberg era, and Riba deduces, with very little reasoning or evidence, that this must be the writer he has waited for his entire life. Is the figure Joyce’s “Man in the Macintosh?” Or is he a young Samuel Beckett? Or is he just a local Beckett lookalike? Or might the figure actually be a ghost with Dracula’s ability to disappear into a fog? Or could this man in fact be Vila-Matas himself- — the author of Dublinesque and the creator of Riba? Appearing in his own novel, just as Vladimir Nabokov claims Joyce appeared in Ulysses as that “Man in the Macintosh?” Is it possible also that the macintoshed man is an embodiment of the “old whore” literature herself? In a way, this mysterious figure is all these things and more. There isn’t a precise logic to it, it just makes sense in the confines of literature, which is a reflection and a refraction of life itself — a thing full of mysteries, ultimately unexplainable.

What logic is there in things? None really. We’re the ones who look for links between one segment of our lives and another. But this attempt to give form to that which has none, to give form to chaos, is something only good writers know how to do successfully.

If nothing else, Dublinesque secures the position of Enrique Vila-Matas on the list of writers who know how to give form to chaos. Just as he tells the story of the Gutenberg age giving way to the Google age, and catalogues a literary trajectory from Joyce to Beckett, Vila-Matas finds a perfect middle ground, the apex between these two pillars: Dublinesque reflects the sparseness of Beckett and the intricateness of Joyce, but more importantly it provides the mystery and depth of both. As two sides of the same coin, doppelgangers of one another in one way, and yet polar opposites from another vantage point, Joyce and Beckett show up through the text, finding a number of ways to haunt its pages. Always someone turns up you never dreamt of.

A Year in Reading: Brad Listi

Early in the year I tried — no kidding — to read everything ever written by and about Sarah Palin.  Going Rogue, Sarah from Alaska, America by Heart, you name it. I had it in my head that I was going to write a bitterly funny book about modern politics. Working title: The Palin. A satirical monster story about a blood-hungry, wolverine-like creature that terrorizes a small northern town before being driven back into the woods. The research process, initially undertaken with great enthusiasm, soon turned grim. I lasted about a month before surrendering. It was like the literary equivalent of Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me. I almost wish I had filmed it.

In search of a palate cleanse, I moved on to late-phase David Markson, the non-novel novels:  Reader’s Block, This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel. It’s like reading like the best Twitter feed in history, a rapid-fire but far from accidental collage of factoids and quotes and letter excerpts and gossip drawn from the super fine print of art and literary history.  Stuff like: “For some years, Marcel Duchamp was the second ranked chess master in France.” And: “T.S. Eliot was afraid of cows.” This is experimental fiction at its finest — way-out-there books that also manage to be compulsively readable. No plot. No characters. No linear progression. And yet somehow deeply emotional. Markson, who died in 2010, looms large on every page — you can almost hear the gears of his mind turning — and mortality is the unmistakable undercurrent. The cumulative effect sneaks up on you. These are books about books, books about the making of art. And mostly they’re about a man facing down death with courage, by reading and thinking and writing.

Most recent book that I read and liked: Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner. This one, too, is concerned with the making of art (I guess this stuff has been on my mind). Lerner’s novel is lean but heavy, and beautifully written, with plenty of wince-while-laughing comedic moments. A very clever inversion of postmodern fiction’s basic model. The protagonist, Adam Gordon, is an avant-garde fuck-up, a gifted young poet (much like the author himself), a Fulbright Scholar drifting in Madrid. He smokes too much hash. He takes too many pills. He mangles the Spanish language and bumbles his way through readings. There are trains. There are lies. There are unsatisfying liaisons with two different women. And above all else, there is the search for the real — both internal and external. I’ll probably read this one again.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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A Year in Reading: Brad Watson

Schott’s Miscellany 2008: An Almanac, Ben Schott: I know I’m at least a year behind, but Schott’s collections of odd information, lists, etc., is great fun and it doesn’t really matter which year you’re reading. Check out also his Schott’s Food & Drink Miscellany. Ben Schott’s great oddball idea almost makes me a little bit happy, as a person, almost. Briefly, at times.

Am I Insane? Dan Scott Ashwander Published by Carlton Press, New York, 1983 (self-published? I don’t know. 30 pages, hardcover): I like to pick up Ashwander’s book every now and then. I first found a copy when I was a newspaper reporter in the 80s on the Alabama Gulf Coast, and I believe Ashwander lived in the area. No idea how he’s doing now. “About the Author,” on the back jacket, reads “Disabled veteran Dan Scott Ashwander was born in Huntsville, Alabama. Says the author, ‘It sounds unbelievable but I am the one and only God. I have been told this many times through telepathy by the Eternal Spirit.’

“The author has a B.S. degree, is single and this is his first full-length published book.”

As to the title, Ashwander argues and concludes that he is not.

The Last Novel, David Markson: Personally, I liked the earlier Vanishing Point in this series of novels composed of fragments Markson’s detached ‘narrator’ compiles, gradually revealing his own situation (never very cheerful). But The Last Novel is good, too, and there’s nothing out there like these books.

The Death of a Beekeeper, Lars Gustafsson: I re-read Gustafsson’s beautiful brief novel every year, just as I do William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. They’re two of my most favorite short novels, very different, but similarly moving. Very different in structure, in conception — Gustafsson’s in the form of a series of found, incomplete notebooks left behind by a retired Swedish schoolteacher, deceased; Maxwell’s in the form of a memoir that turns itself inside-out in order to fictionalize the life of a boyhood friend whose emotional experience mirrors his own and provides the first relief from or release of long pent-up grief.

Stories by Joy Williams, from her several collections. Williams’ ability to surprise you with astounding moments of brilliant juxtaposition and insight is uncanny. Her intelligence flares up, startling, in your path, as unsettling and fascinating as the biblical burning bush to its observer, there.

The Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford, 2007 ed.: I used this book in a class I taught on the contemporary American short story. I miss some of the selections from the earlier edition, such as the stories by Jane and Paul Bowles (his amazing “A Distant Episode”), “No Place for You, My Love,” by Welty (replaced with “Ladies in Spring”), “Good Country People” (replaced by “The Artificial Nigger,” for some reason, it’s said, O’Connor’s favorite story among her own published work), “Lechery,” Jayne Anne Phillips, stories by Leonard Michaels and James Salter. But there’s good new work in there by Barry Hannah, Elizabeth Spencer, Steve Yarbrough, George Saunders, Kevin Canty, Tom Franklin, Denis Johnson, Dennis McFarland, Robert Olen Butler, and, my favorite switch, substituting Joy Williams’ award-winning, devastating story, “The Farm,” for her great story, “Train.” “Train” is great, but “The Farm” is one of those stories that drains your blood, leaves you in some strange suspension of any life beyond what’s in its pages. It takes a while to come back to life, after reading “The Farm.”

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