An ode to the first Internet novel.
Since you’re on here, you know that it is the month of the Internet novel. Two heavy-hitters in particular—Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking about This—have been brought into the world, and everyone on Book Twitter seems to be ruminating on what we want from this kind of thing. Some people love the Internet novel for its relatable portrayal of the way we live; some people hate the Internet novel because they come to fiction to be rid of their daily lives. Of course, the Internet novel is by no means new. Eight years ago, there was Dave Egger’s The Circle. And twelve years before that, there was Jeanette Winterson’s The PowerBook, a novel that I will now deem The First Internet Novel and recommend wholeheartedly to you.
Jeanette Winterson has a knack for unconventional structures. On page one, you are greeted not by a Table of Contents but by a Menu. It’s a playful introduction, one that already mocks and mirrors the language of this new technology. Some of the chapters—set in aggressive CAPS LOCK—read like a computer’s instruction manual: OPEN HARD DRIVE, NEW DOCUMENT, SEARCH, VIEW, VIEW AS ICON, EMPTY TRASH, SPECIAL, HELP, SHOW BALLOONS, CHOOSER, QUIT, REALLY QUIT?, RESTART, SAVE.
The story itself begins with Ali, a woman who writes stories via email for anyone who asks for them. Of course, what people mostly ask for is fantasies—love stories. She borrows people from history, characters from myth. She casts herself in the leading role opposite you:
This is where the story starts. Here, in these long lines of laptop DNA. Here we take your chromosomes, twenty-three pairs, and alter your height, eyes, teeth, sex. This is an invented world. You can be free just for one night. Undress. Take off your clothes. Take off your body. Hang them up behind the door. Tonight we go deeper than disguise.
It’s online dating before online dating. It’s online dating before the point was to come together in meatspace. The PowerBook is just so unafraid to be sentimental, to show its want. It’s refreshingly earnest! To be fair, the Internet of Jeanette Winterson’s novel was a different Internet. (Just look at the cover design: the wAvY cLiP aRT fONT is not ironic! Bless her!) Published in 2001, The PowerBook predates Twitter by five glorious years. There was no wry, cynical Twitter Voice then. But something I love about this writer is that, to her, every story is a romance. The Internet is merely a way to even the playing field, to flatten time and space, much like love.