Reconsidering the Conventions of the So-Called Internet Novel

James Webster Makes the Case for the Encyclopedic Over the Fragmented

I’ll keep it brief, and I won’t mention him by name, but a certain three-named bandana-wearer wrote a very long book about television in the 1990s. Piggybacking, partially, on the ideas of Neil Postman, this long book showed a vision of a world in thrall of screens and the people on them. It was intended to be indicative of the way that a person at the time would have been experiencing the world.

Twenty-four-hour cable news was a relatively new invention in the 90s, segueing infinitely between segments with little more than an “and now” to prepare the viewer for the next topic. And this was, more or less, the way that business was conducted for years until something newer, and notably faster, came along.

As social media became the preferred method to watch happenings in real time, the art of the moment, understandably, adapted to fit the ways in which the artists experience the world. When social media was still a nascent medium, its rules and functions less defined, onlookers asked the question “Is this art?” As the 2010s wore on, and social media cemented itself as a part of our daily lives, it didn’t take long before the question seemed to become inverted, switching from “how can social media be art?” to “how can art be social media?”

Fragmentation is an established convention of the so-called “internet novel”—books like No One Is Talking About This, Weather and Dept. of Speculation, literally show me a healthy person, Several People Are Typing, or the classification-defying work of Maggie Nelson. It’s a pervasive and controversial style. These are books written in the parlance of the internet, short bursts of wry observation, generous with their negative space on the page, leaving the reader to often quite literally fill in the gaps.

In Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, widely considered an internet novel itself, the author actually completes a type of self-deprecating-self-referential ouroboros favored by the extremely online, mocking the fragmentary style as she enacts it:

“Another justification for this structure is that it mimics the nature of modern life, which is “fragmented.” But fragmentation is one of the worst aspects of modern life. It’s extremely stressful. “Fragmented” is a euphemism for “interrupted.” Why would I want to make my book like Twitter? If I wanted a book that resembled Twitter, I wouldn’t write a book; I would just spend even more time on Twitter.”

But Twitter doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor do our brains function like tabs in a browser window, one thing visible at a time. Oyler’s narrator asserts that the modern world is fragmented, and that “fragmented” is a euphemism for “interrupted,” but as the internet has integrated itself into our lives, it hasn’t so much fragmented our reality as much as it has liquified it.

It used to be easier to get interrupted. I am old enough to remember a time before I had the internet in my pocket, when there was a clear delineation between an online and offline world. Television and the pre-smartphone internet required geographic consistency, your consumption was tied to whatever room had the TV, or where the wifi could reach. In the age of the smartphone, however, the boundaries have gotten blurrier. We’re on demand at all times, reading the news, responding to emails, DMs, and notifications. I myself am writing this very sentence on my phone while riding the bus. So while these fragmentary novels present a world wherein you’re unaware of the outside world when you’re looking at your phone, the reality is more likely that when you are in the world, you are aware of Twitter.

I propose that rather than fragmentation, the internet, as it currently stands, offers an easy parallel to the encyclopedic novel of the 20th century.

I shouldn’t need to point out that we are bombarded, at almost all times, by information. So consider, then, something like halting the momentum of your allegorical revenge novel to ponder the minutiae of whale taxonomy. There’s a fairly common expression online that says “everything I have learned about [a topic] has been against my will.” Is that, as a sentiment, so different from how people (Melville nerds excluded) tend to feel about Moby Dick and its whaling chapters?

Edward Mendelson, who coined the term “encyclopedic novel,” defined it as one that “attempts to render the full range of knowledge and beliefs of a national culture.” In a less technical sense, encyclopedic novels are often long, digressive books that take real joy in the parts many readers might deem non-essential, what writer David Letzter refers to as “junk text”. Encyclopedic novels can be difficult, boring, and frustrating, which also makes them tremendously realistic, particularly in the post-internet age.

These types of sprawling, polyphonic novels have fallen out of fashion, but there are still a few recent standouts. On the shorter end of the spectrum is The Blizzard Party by Jack Livings (FSG, 2021), a head-spinning novel about both a single night, and the entire modern world. There is also the unstoppable onslaught of Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (Biblioasis/Galley Beggar, 2019) a novel comprised of a single sentence that runs to almost 1,000 pages. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize, and I consider it the finest “internet novel” to date, although it looks, and reads, like none of the others.

These novels are still encyclopedic, so to speak, but now, rather than the Britannica, or the World Book, the encyclopedia in question is a website, or several. Take, as a first example, The Blizzard Party. While anchored around a single night in 1978, the structuring of this capital-L Literary novel is impossibly dense, filled with dozens and dozens of those little coincidences that would seem unrealistic if they didn’t happen all the time. For example: our main character is Hazel. In the present day, Hazel is a widow, still struggling to come to terms with the fact that her husband never came home from his job in the World Trade Center. Later in the novel, and back in 1978, we learn about Hazel’s mother—she’s a painter—and over the course of the eponymous blizzard party, she agrees to sell a painting to a Saudi Arabian businessman. The business man takes this painting, and gives it as a gift. The recipient of this gift is a man named Osama, and he sells the painting to help fund a clandestine militant group, and the actions of this militant group will eventually lead to the death of our main character’s husband on a fateful morning in September, 2001.

That particular 30 year arc is just one instance of Livings’ wide-screen ambitions. On the whole, the book itself is reminiscent of the types of Wikipedia rabbit-holes down which people love to fall, all those nested articles, recursively linking. You need look no further than the actual Wikipedia article for the actual Blizzard of ‘78 to see the potential to lose oneself in a labyrinth of interconnected subjects, and how one could build a compelling story out of the sheer breadth of human knowledge.

Encyclopedic novels can be difficult, boring, and frustrating, which also makes them tremendously realistic, particularly in the post-internet age.

Of course, the act of clicking on Wikipedia articles is different from the passive, by-assimilation information that we pick up on the infinite scroll of social media. We are not drip-fed information as much as we are nearly drowned in it. While the pieces (or fragments) themselves may be small, the sheer volume of them is overwhelming. It’s summed up best by a sentiment I have seen expressed over and over again: “we were not supposed to know this many people, let alone their every thought.” Quantity will overwhelm quality every time, as the long book by the three-named bandana-wearer also intended to demonstrate 25 years ago. And he was far from the first.

In 1976, William Gaddis won the National Book Award for his second novel, J R. The book, as described in the New York Review of Books, reflected Gaddis’ views of “contemporary reality [as] a chaos of disconnections, a blizzard of noise.” J R, for anyone uninitiated, is a tower of talk. The novel is told across 700 pages of distinctly American clangor—mostly unattributed dialogue—and this kind of cacophonous approach is not dissimilar to a written version of something like TikTok. If the comparison seems disrespectful, consider that Gaddis himself lamented the destructive complicity of “every four year old with a computer” in his final book, Agapē Agape, an apotheotic howl against exactly the kind of high-speed, technology-focused world in which we now live. It was on his mind.

On TikTok, like in J R, we are presented, again and again, with new faces attached to new names, who offer us snippets of dialogue, music, jokes, rants, advertisements, before they disappear and are replaced. Sometimes we will come across a person again, sometimes their appearances on our screens are singular. Comparatively, J R features around a hundred characters throughout its spin-cycle of American life, and it also features music, snippets of radio advertisements, passersby, announcers, loudspeakers, televisions, and so on.

So if our art has been trying to warn us for decades that technology will breed chaos and noise into our lives, often masquerading as convenience and entertainment, then what might a cautionary novel look like now that the predictions have come to fruition?

Despite receiving multiple comparisons to Ulysses, Lucy Ellmann’s 2019 novel Ducks, Newburyport reads to me more like the successor to something like J R. Ducks focuses on the torrential stream of a regular woman’s consciousness, laying bare modern life for the panic attack it has become.

By contrast, a book like Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This might be an accurate, experiential parallel to what it feels like to scroll through Twitter, but it imagines a world wherein Twitter might exist in a vacuum. To me, Ducks is an accurate, experiential parallel to the way one feels as they move through modern life, raising the question of how this kind of acute internet poisoning, this information overload, affects us even when we’re not actively looking at a screen.

To start, we have to acknowledge the language tics. Ducks begins each new clause in its titanic sentence with “the fact that.” Much like “no one is talking about this,” it nods to a specific type of Twitter language, used by the politically obsessed and K-Pop stans alike. As anyone who adopted “as a treat” in their day-to-day language can attest, “the fact that” is a perfect indicator of the ways in which an online lexicon will infiltrate your offline life.

In a world like ours, progress is often unceremonious, scrolling down an infinite timeline, forever.

Our unnamed narrator uses this framework, grasping new information by shaping it into a familiar form, to process the world in which she lives. As she ricochets through an ocean of worries, she’s also assailed by headlines she remembers, songs stuck in her head, and other pieces of detritus that wash up on the shore of her consciousness, deposited there by the internet.

She pinwheels from thinking about making breakfast for her children, to wondering how people in the time of Laura Ingalls Wilder were able to survive, to feeding the birds in the backyard, to worrying that her daughter spends too much time watching YouTube makeup tutorials, to considering how there will likely be a global pandemic in her lifetime, and that during said global pandemic we’re all still going to have to do our chores and pay our taxes and go to work (again, this book was published in 2019).

Many of these thoughts pop-up more than once, the way that the internet repeats itself, sometimes altering certain variables, but repeating nonetheless. Like how if you watch it for too long, the “Shrimp Fried Rice” joke will, some day, come across your feed again, signaling the passage of time like some digital comet.

It took Lucy Ellmann six years to write Ducks, starting in 2013, and perhaps the lengthy creation of the thing is what gives it its strength—it evolved with the world. It feels accurate because it is, and because it stays firmly grounded in the human. Where other internet novels make the narrator an abstraction, an extension of their devices, Ellmann traps us in our own heads as we bury our heads, ostrich-like, in our phones.

It’s worth noting here at the end that Lucy Ellmann’s father is Richard Ellmann, a Joyce scholar, who wrote the definitive biography of an author whose work to which Ducks was repeatedly compared. Ellmann insists that she wasn’t thinking about Joyce, or about Ulysses’s 50 page closing sentence, when she was writing Ducks, but maybe, like anyone who’s spent too much time online, she was utilizing knowledge she picked up without even realizing it had happened. She took something old and iterated on it, the way the internet is wont to do. Because in a world like ours, progress is often unceremonious, scrolling down an infinite timeline, forever.

James Webster
James Webster
James Webster is a writer, reader, and social media person. He tweets at @exhaustdata





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