When Lit Blew Into Bits

Novel of the Decade: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoPhoto: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine (book and Kindle). Illustration by Nick Higgins

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.

Unfortunately, here at the other end of that same decade, readers are still waiting for DeWitt’s second novel. She co-authored one, called Your Name Here, but the book was so radically entangled in the aughts’ new modes of writing (large portions of it consist of actual e-mail exchanges between DeWitt and the Australian journalist Ilya Gridneff) that it has yet to make its way into print. (The journal n+1 published an excerpt in 2008; I got my copy of the entire novel in PDF form from DeWitt’s website.) This, in a nutshell, is the problem of the aughts. Will all of these newly indispensable textual forms ever lend themselves to actual books, or are they simply ends in themselves? (DeWitt has said that she temporarily had to move into an Internet-less apartment in order to get work done; according to her blog, she spent 2009 trying to finish five different books.)

Early in The Last Samurai, one of the book’s narrators declares, “I would like to strike a style to amaze.” This could be the official motto of the literary aughts. Books formed under the attentional pressure of the Internet tend to devote disproportionate energy to style; if you can’t assume that your readership is going to stick with you beyond a paragraph or two, it’s probably smart to load that paragraph with maximum pizzazz. The decade’s books were obsessed with creating and capturing voices—not the detached omniscient voice of a controlling author but limited, idiosyncratic, stylistically marked, self-consciously amazing voices: the ungrammatical, comma-less poetry of Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang; the hard-boiled Yiddish of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; the six very different voices, spanning a couple of centuries, that take turns narrating David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

The aughts was the decade in which, for good and for ill, the old reader-alienating strategies of postmodernism went populist. It was the decade of Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s (founded in 1998), and Jonathan Safran Foer. Writers seemed to strip-mine the most distinctive features from major work like Infinite Jest (endnotes, quasi-academic syntax, radical self-consciousness) and redeploy them on a minor scale. Eggers’s 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, kicked off the decade by exhibiting, in extreme form, the sensibility that would run through much of aughts lit: smart, self-conscious, playful, voice-obsessed, relentlessly engaging, formally busy but easy to digest, both ironic and earnest—an attitude perched halfway between the old-school habits of literary reading and the newfangled demands of the web.

Many of the decade’s best books also happened to be—and I want, if possible, to use this word non-pejoratively—slight. Slightness is not necessarily a flaw, the failure to be suitably big. It’s also a deliberate aesthetic, with its own set of demands (concentration, brevity, the perfect execution of limited forms) and its own venerable canon: P. G. Wodehouse, G. K. Chesterton, Charles Lamb, Oscar Wilde, E. B. White, Nicholson Baker, John Updike, and even Nabokov and Borges. It’s a question not just of length but of attitude, ambition, agenda. The totalizing urge, that instinct to say absolutely everything about millennial America or the Cold War or late-capitalist finance, that drove the giant novels of the late nineties—not only Infinite Jest but also DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997), Wolfe’s A Man in Full (1998)—began to feel less natural in the aughts. Instead we saw the cultivation of small forms. Many of our best writers are virtuosos of slightness: Lydia Davis, who occasionally writes entire stories composed of a single sentence; George Saunders, our most famous fiction writer who’s never published a full-length novel; Billy Collins, permanent laureate of the accessible and breezy. Even the big ambitious art novels of the aughts are remarkably reader-friendly. Cloud Atlas, with its nested stories stretching from the 1850s to a postapocalyptic future, is content to be experimental without ever becoming ponderous or unwieldy—a minor, perfect version of the sprawling postmodern meganovel tradition from which it so clearly descends.

If there is a signature novel of the aughts—one book that most artfully co-opted our newfangled webbiness, that allowed itself to feel simultaneously major and small, that anchored its post-postmodern gimmickry in solid fictional ground—it was Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). It took Díaz, famously, eleven years to follow his first book, the short-story collection Drown, with Oscar Wao—the same amount of time it took Tom Wolfe to write his 750-page A Man in Full. Instead of pouring that time and energy into making Oscar Wao long and sprawling and sweeping and universal, Díaz made the book radically particular and condensed. It performs classic meganovel services— tracking a family through several generations, telling the history of an entire nation—in 350 pages. It’s rare to find a novel so short so often referred to as “epic.”

The really stunning thing about Oscar Wao, in true aughts fashion, is its style. Díaz turns the book over to a small crowd of narrators, each of whom seems to channel 100 different subcultures and dialects. The result is a reference-studded Spanglish loaded so densely with extratextual shout-outs (ringwraiths, Le Corbusier, Joseph Conrad’s wife) it practically requires the web as an unofficial appendix. The book could have been sponsored by Google and Wikipedia; you either have to consult them constantly or just surrender to the vastness of the knowledge you don’t have—which is, of course, its own kind of pleasure.

It’s silly to try to predict what reading will look like 50 years from now, or even at the end of the next decade. We’re always going to mis-imagine the teleputers of tomorrow. Will books survive at all? Will a novel as innovative as Oscar Wao come to seem traditional compared to the busy interactive hypertexts we’ll all be neuroskimming on the mind screens of our Kortex-Kindles? Impossible to say. I prefer, though, to be optimistic. It feels equally silly, after all, in the midst of so much textual energy, to imagine we’re on the brink of the death of meaningful reading. Over the course of the aughts, the Internet and literature struggled toward tentative symbiosis. We saw online novels (e.g., Walter Kirn’s The Unbinding), the rise of book blogs, and the tech-refreshment of musty classics (The Aeneid as a Facebook page, Orwell’s diaries reformatted as a blog). We saw the advent of the paradoxical Kindle, a new machine that tries earnestly to act like something old. And we even saw, halfway through the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, an online project called Infinite Summer: a few thousand avid online readers joining together, via the technology of apocalyptic cognitive distraction—teleputer 2.0—to collectively plow their way through the analog expanse of Infinite Jest.

When Lit Blew Into Bits