Most of us are familiar with the internet’s ability to softly divide our interests into self-contained subsets: through the medium we can poke around a Japanese news site, discuss a topic on a photo forum, upload to youtube a home video of us popping a balloon in a stranger’s face, download the latest Burzum track, post a missed connections message to someone we stared at for a few seconds while in line at the bank, trudge deep into the sludgy swampland of porn, and then, later, organize work-related emails and download some new corporate letter templates. This many-chambered procession is all contained within the single structure of the internet, and all this activity takes place while we’re sitting, alone, in one spot, with no one to talk to.
This lonely, simple, and fractured mode encourages the fragmentation of traits that together make up our greater character. Sherry Turkle, in “The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit,” maintains that usable interfaces promote an experience of play which extends (and flattens out) to one’s self and one’s identity. Wylie Sypher takes on this idea of the fragmentation of self in “Loss of the Self: In Modern Literature and Art.” In it he discusses the “dark abyss that separates man’s thinking from his feeling in the modern world” (it’s been a while since I read this, so I just had to quote straight from amazon).
More recently, Graeme Kirkpatrick, in “Modernism and the Esthetics of Personal Computing,” notes that “in the past decade the PC has become more overtly estheticized – a source of multi-medic sensation and apparent personal empowerment – as it has moved into the cultural mainstream. The rise of the seductive “user-friendly” interface has led some to speculate that the PC is a “postmodern” cultural phenomenon, stimulating relativist and anti-realist lines of self-reflection on the part of its users.”
“The immateriality and anonymity,” Kirkpatrick writes, “afforded by computer-generated environments in on-line encounters reinforce the postmodernist theme of identity as something plastic and endlessly revisable.”
He writes that interfaces (such as that of an online game) that deprive us of the cognitive burden of memory are sites of tension, where we also have to work, if we wish, to sustain a sense of self.
Functionally, while this internet plays a strong role in granting us the keen ability to more easily adapt ourselves to specific situations that require some remote bits of information that we’ve, access available, previously tapped into during our wanderings, a tendency less exclusive to these internet-times is that of becoming really obsessed with some things at the expense of others. And, supplemental to that, how we can distract ourselves forever on it. Unfortunately, James Bernard Frost, in his novel, World Leader Pretend: A Novel, a novel tackling this conflict between our “real world” lives and our identities that have destructed by the internet, focuses more on those latter ideas — internet obsession, plus global connectivity (that’s new?) — as his examples of how radically different the world is in these modern times. I mean, I think he wanted to focus on the idea of restructured identities — he certainly seems to indicate that on his blog — but I think, in the end, that goal was hindered by style.
Disturbingly, in a most disparate way the novel is pre-modernist — anti-realist — while trying to make use of this post-modern idea of jacked-in fractition. It is, in essence, a romantic tale of characters phoning in from all over the world — globally fragmented, they are — to meet up together for an online roleplaying game called The Realm. Frost imagines The Realm as a place where users can, as never before, neglect other portions of their lives in favor of a pretty boring game (and I hope the game was made boring in order to accentuate the fact that these people probably should be doing other things with their lives).
This techno-geist setting is greatly displaced, however, by the stilted, deliberate novel-form of his writing. Rather than set the entire story — that is, both the form of the story and the plot of the story — within the realm of The Realm, Frost fractured it, optimistically combining two contrasting modes. I have trouble connecting with it. I’m more drawn toward another local author, Mike Daily’s fresh and ambitious creation, Alarm (by the way, I’ve really wanted to write a book and subtitle it “novel” and not “a novel”, as I recently found Daily to have done — or, better yet, no subtitle at all, as I think novel is an ugly word). Or the story in the sort-of local Veneer, I=BROADBOAR, about author James Voges being entrenched in World of Warcraft. Voges’s piece is written not in an infantilized tone, but with a voice that carries within itself the immediacy of the subject. It’s seems appropriate, and it is arresting.
To back up: halfway through reading this book I changed my mind and decided I wasn’t going to write a review of it (not that anyone was trying to force me to).
I started the book after being called in to interview for a job with Frost’s wife. As preparation for the interview, and also because it looked like something I’d like, I picked it up. At first I very much liked the book. And I’m pretty sure it was a genuine like. The writing was compelling: wise with insight into the characters, strong in its devotion and untempered eye, iced with flourish. I was finding in it links to contemporary word-whizzes like Sesshu Foster, and maybe, a little Pynchon? And I liked the world. I wanted to fall deeper into their lives, discover how they intertwine and aid one another, and learn about the online roleplaying game that connects them.
But then I didn’t get the job.
And then I couldn’t help it — I wanted to help it; I wanted to keep rolling through the book, totally disassociating it from my personal life, like I wasn’t bummed about not getting a cool job, like my wallet wasn’t just a shell in my pocket. I tried, but it still happened: I stopped liking the novel. After 80 pages or so my infatuation faded. Suddenly the game that runs through the story, called The Realm, is actually a pretty boring game — like a glorified chat room attached to a text-based real-time strategy game. Those scenes were boring, and they were loaded with mathly charts that were simple to graze past. The writerly flourishes I’d looked so kindly upon turned into staid, deliberate repetition. The confident voice turned into a bold omniscient narrator prone to dictating the characters’ every single thought — what they thought, what they wanted, what they had done, what they will do, why they will do it. And so I saw the excessively long sentences that served, mostly, to repeat and to remind us, the forgetful readers, who the characters are and why they are doing what they are doing, as not fanciful and complex but derogatory.
But however bad it looked — that is, however my new opinion seemed to reflect my poor integrity — my former appreciation had not actually been shredded by personal intrusions. The rosy glasses had indeed been removed, and in its absence I still found many pleasures in the text. Well, in the characters. To put it straight (and confusing) I enjoyed the characters despite the text.
Frost has stated that he wishes more reviewers would discuss not his writing, nor his story, but the implications of the game itself. I find that difficult to do, though, as his own discussions of the game and how the internet is changing shit is completely overshadowed by total devotion toward micro-managing the character’s brains.
In a complete flip of, for instance, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s dry, repetitive, exterior descriptions of scenes, we now have Frost squarely sticking himself inside heads, describing with calm repetition the unequivocal summaries of the interiors.
“But she is drawn in. She is drawn into the screen that says, your messengers await your commands, the screen that has a nymph-like man in outlined in neon purple, a nymph-like man outlined in neon-purple like the man in Tron, a nymph-like man with wings on his feet and a scroll in his hands that delivers messages instantly, that can carry language to the ends of The Realm instantaneously. The inhabitants of The Realm have their very own Hermes.
She must take a jab. Take a jab at the Two-Headed Boy…. The Lady has to send him a message, has to let him know that she knows that what he has done is a mistake. The message she wants to send Two-Headed Boy is this: overconfidence is your greatest weakness. The message is a mistake.”
I had no choice but to submit my confidence in my own ability to interpret the text, and to just wait for him to tell me everything that I should know and think. Doing such, I saw that World Leader Pretend isn’t what the apocalyptic cover art and Infinite Jest reference on the blurb purport it to be: a borderline-sci-fi literary novel. It’s in fact a young adult novel (albeit one that features swearing, pot, and fantasies about sex (or drunken romps that seem like fantasy)). Or, at least, the readers being addressed are children. Ambiguity, mystery, surprise — all gone. If, for instance, there’s some sexual tension, Frost declares to us that there exists a sexual desire in the characters to make it with one another. We know now exactly how everything is. I think Robert Anton Wilson put it well: “‘Is,’ ‘is.’ ‘is’ — the idiocy of the word haunts me. If it were abolished, human thought might begin to make sense. I don’t know what anything ‘is’; I only know how it seems to me at this moment.”
All this is to say that the narrator isn’t actually a narrator. There’s nothing meta in the structure. The narrator is the writer, James Bernard Frost. He knows exactly what the story is and how it’s to be told, because he’s the guy sitting at home who thought of it and is selling it. He is unerring in his delivery — this will happen, and then they will do that because this is who they are. I found myself yearning for a flinch, for a bit of uncertainty. But his voice is ever infallible, and as such it is uninteresting. Even with characters and story-lines that I connected with and thought about even when the book wasn’t in front of me, I would turn to the book and immediately feel the push of his voice, his presentation of the characters as if they’re up on a wall, distorted into the shapes of Frost’s desire, ready to be plucked down and spoken through.
The characters themselves, naturally, are matched to this tone. Not unlike the astounding machomen that Tom Robbins enjoys writing, most of Frost’s characters are, in some way, awesome. I mean, they are the best ever at something. Maybe during the period the book covers they’ve lost their way a bit and are having some problems actualizing their awesomeness, but somewhere in them they are the Best Ever. There’s the NYC lothario (one of the best ever), who turns into a welder in Antarctica (also one of the best ever); the competitive skiier who was on track to be the best ever before he stacked and turned into a quadriplegic wunderbot who becomes the best ever at using the best technology to operate his five computers with his laser eyes; a girl who’s the best ever inadvertent Thai kiddieporn stripteaser (she’s just kicks ass at accidentally showering like a luscious bombed-up tart); the main character, Xerxes, we are reminded time again that he’s brilliant, and a stud, great at taking one for the team, and without even wanting to he could kick our asses at chess. Sure he molested his twin sister when they were little, and he’s suicidal, and when it comes to talking to people he’s kind of a douche, but in time he will be reacquainted with his swagger, and because he’s super he’ll take everyone to the top with him.
As these characters step close to the edge of the hole that often trapped Robbins’ characters — meta-narrative systems of assertion — I think this is appropriate: from Roberto Maria Dainotto’s “The Excremental Sublime: The Postmodern Literature of Blockage and Release”:
Larry McCaffery’s The Metafictional Muse provides a neat summary of how postmodern narrative can produce an anamnesis of the artificial construction of overpowering structures of “reality”:
“In examining the concept of man-as-fiction-maker, [postmodern works] deal with characters busily constructing systems to play with or to help them deal with their chaotic lives. Some of these systems are clearly fictional in nature: we observe writers trying to create stories, men struggling to break the hold of mythic patterns, desperate people inventing religious explanations for a terrible catastrophe…”
If only Frost could submit to the same system of play that his characters fell prey to.
So, yeah, I didn’t want to review this. But then I changed my mind.
Also, this post is an extension of this short discussion I participated in on metaxucafe, regarding a recent David Foster Wallace story in the New Yorker. In fact, you could probably skip this entire review and just read my comment. Too late?