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When Lit Blew Into Bits

The meganovel shrank, even as reading itself metastasized.


Novel of the Decade: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao  

It seems significant, somehow, that Infinite Jest—the big buzzy signature meganovel of the nineties—was set at the end of the aughts. Most of the book’s action appears to take place in 2009, which means that we’ve all just survived the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. It also means that David Foster Wallace’s prophetic window has now (at least in the most literal sense) closed forever, in the same way Orwell’s did when we reached the actual 1984. And in fact Infinite Jest’s vision of the future does, these days, look slightly dated. One of the book’s nightmare scenarios is the existence of an entertainment so addictive that people watch it until they die—a film they access via a machine Wallace calls a “teleputer,” which turns out to be some kind of ungodly hybrid of HDTV, computer, telephone, and VCR; it crunches data on “3.6-MB diskettes” and plays films off actual physical cartridges. All of which carbon-dates the novel’s creation precisely back to the early-to-mid-nineties (it was published in 1996)—before the rise of iPhones or even DVDs, when the Internet was just beginning to percolate on our dial-up modems. (In mid-1993, there were only 130 websites, and most people didn’t even have a browser to visit them.) The DFW generation’s primary technological bugaboo was TV, a rival narrative engine that both attracted and repelled. (See Wallace’s classic essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in which he calls TV “both medicine and poison.”) Novelists in the aughts, however, had to contend with a very different bugaboo. The technology that infinitely distracted us this decade, sometimes even to the point of death—the entertainment that tore us away from work and family and prevented us from immersing ourselves in complex meganovels from the noble old-timey decades of yore—was not a passive, cartridge-based viewing experience but largely a new form of reading: the massive archive of linked documents known as the World Wide Web. TV, in comparison, looks like a fairly simple adversary: Its flickering images lure readers away from books altogether. The Internet, on the other hand, invades literature on its home turf. It has created, in the last ten years, all kinds of new and potent rival genres of reading—the blog, the chat, the tweet, the comment thread—genres that seem not only to siphon our attention but to change the way our brains process text.

What new species of books, then, have proved themselves fit to survive in the attentional ecosystem of the aughts? What kind of novel, if any, can appeal to readers who read with 34 nested browser tabs open simultaneously on their frontal lobes? And, for that matter, what kind of novel gets written by novelists who spend increasing chunks of their own time reading words off screens?

I found myself drawn, this decade, in the gaps between blog reading, to a very particular kind of novel. Not to sound all techno-deterministic here, because the loops of influence are obviously complex, but many of my favorite aughts novels are those that mimic (or thematize, or rejigger, or one-up) the experience of reading online. They show quasi-bloggish tendencies: They’re relatively short, deeply style-conscious, and built out of text fragments narrated by radically diverse voices. Cohesion seems less a textual given than a tenuous miracle that takes every ounce of a writer’s artistry and genius to pull off. Even the reigning international meganovel of the aughts—Roberto Bolaño’s 900-page Mexistentialist epic 2666—is essentially episodic: a monument built out of linked novellas, which are themselves built out of loose constellations of micro-narratives, parts cobbled out of evocative scraps. Bolaño’s relationship to narrative grew organically out of his many years as a poet, but it resonates nicely with our new habits of web-inflected incremental reading. We are increasingly fluent in (to quote 2666) “images with no handhold, images freighted with all the orphanhood in the world, fragments, fragments.”

One neat little parable of the literary aughts is the unorthodox career of Helen DeWitt, the Oxford-trained classicist who published, all the way back in 2000, arguably the most exciting debut novel of the decade: The Last Samurai, the story of an eccentric single mother struggling to raise her boy-genius son in nineties London. The book is many things at once: eggheaded but plainspoken, experimental but accessible, an art novel and a page-turner. It also captures much of what was interesting about the millennial moment, when our access to information was exploding so rapidly that first-generation search engines like Yahoo (which used actual humans to curate results) were being blown out of the water by the pure algorithmic magic of Google. The Last Samurai is obsessed with knowledge—its varieties (practical, social, theoretical), usefulness, storage, and migration from one medium to another. The book’s boy genius turns himself into a kind of human Babel Fish, mastering twenty languages, while his mother works a monotonous data-entry job that seems like a precursor to Google Books, typing old magazine copy into computer files for a database.

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