Too much internet

The vulgarity of the "very online" novel

I am trying not to start the day online. My mood, sense of possibility, even my skin—everything is improved when I choose not to open my eyes and start reading tweets. I make the kids breakfast, drink a lot of coffee, read something old (this morning M.F.K. Fisher, c. 1968, going ballistic about the American penchant for “dip”), sometimes meditate for 10 minutes (seven). Bread baking is a thing I can begin in the morning that will occupy me for a while, a mental tether to something manual. Yesterday I needed extra intervention so I also combined flours for future breads, made cinnamon simple syrup, shio koji chicken, scallion pancakes. I also read a bit more of Everything She Touched, a new biography of the artist Ruth Asawa.

Untitled, 1970. “One of many pieces she wove in her home studio,” writes biographer Marilyn Chase, “where her children also saw her cooking dinners and mopping floors.”

This book is wonderful:

I particularly love this photo of the artist:

The internet has been annoying me.

I mean, it’s deep and weird and infinite—I am occasionally able to access the faint memory of a sort of wonder about it?—but it’s also such a mean and tiring place. I don’t have the urge to write about life online (a thing I do realize I’m doing right this minute), as many contemporary writers do, and I don’t really enjoy reading about it. I have loved a lot of recent novels where the internet just is, forming part of a verisimilar backdrop, even those that rely heavily on text-message dialogue, for example, like Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. Novels where characters receive news or communicate in the ways we do now, but not those that want to talk about those phenomena themselves, engage in a meta-analysis of the moment. Maybe it’s that such books bring too much attention to the conditions of their creation—and of the market for their consumption. I find it onerous, and almost vulgar sometimes. I’m not sure exactly why—I think it exacerbates a sense that I don’t belong here, that I was born at the wrong time. Can’t we just write novels about quiet, analog problems?

I’m thinking about books by or about the “very online,” like Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, which came out to great fanfare this week, or Patricia Lockwood’s forthcoming No One is Talking About This. Lockwood’s 2019 essay “The Communal Mind” (you can see her read it here) is one of the best things I’ve read about the dizzying, mortifying, riveting, always-on quality of life with the internet, but I still don’t know that I want to read the autofiction version. (Surely I still will; I’m reading Oyler’s book too. Grudgingly reading things I’m not certain I want to read in order to keep up with “the conversation” is a cornerstone of my literary diet and I wouldn’t have it any other way.)

Part of the problem is that these novels tend to reproduce the very thing they’re ostensibly critiquing. “Is there a way to write about the Internet that doesn’t merely reproduce the language of the Internet?” Claire Wills asks in a review of Lockwood's novel today. Then, talking about Lockwood’s (very Lockwood-like) main character: “In Toronto she meets a man ‘she had talked to so often in the portal’ and hears him speak through his ‘actual mouth.’” It must be partly a function of increased screen time during the pandemic, but I’m tired of living in this state of permanent absurdity. I’m not finding “the portal” cute, nor the weird, diminutive characterization of real life (the genuine article, the thing that was here before!) as “actual” or “literal.”

Of course, there are other possible lives—in the country, in the desert, in the archives, more garden-focused or even more cooking-focused. In other words, I could avoid this friction if I was a little less online. But that’s tricky, too, for a writer in 2021. Maybe it’s simply a matter of curating better. It feels very different to be deep in the internet of a small press publisher’s backlist than, say, moving my greasy thumb and index finger outward to enlarge the image of an influencer’s table setting—or worse, face.

I’m still absorbed in Angie Cruz’s Dominicana and growing more attached to the central character, poor 15-year-old Ana, who is married to a brute twice her age and learning crushing lessons about men, money, sex, America. I’m even starting to get that nervous feeling, wondering how I’ll part with her at the end of the book. The novel is a page-turner, although I’ve found myself curious about (and irritated by) certain anachronistic inconsistencies. I wonder whether they’re deliberate. A character talking about the necessity of having a “side hustle” in New York in 1965? Or carrying “heavy-ass luggage.” Or a moment when Ana says “I plate the food,” using plate as a verb. Most noticeable is the brochure with an image of a woman with a busted lip on it, which a nurse in a hospital gives Ana when she notices bruises on her neck. Her husband explodes when he finds it in her purse.

Who gave you this shit?

He shoves the paper in my face. In my mind I see the list of phone numbers and the map of the island of Manhattan, with red dots and arrows pointing to places where women like me can get help.

But there was no such network of resources in 1965 for women whose husbands were abusive. By 1975 there was still just one shelter for battered women in the US, a fact I was surprised to learn when I read this fascinating Larissa MacFarquhar piece on the long, complicated life of Transition House, a Cambridge, Massachusetts shelter, in the New Yorker in 2019. It was the women’s movement of the late 1960s and 1970s that brought this issue into public consciousness. The first shelter in New York City wasn’t opened until 1976. (As Gloria Steinem recently observed, “until I was 40, there was no word for domestic violence. It was just called life.”) There may have been other networks of care, concern, or shelter for women who were being beaten up by their husbands, like through churches maybe—I’d be curious to read about them if so—but the kind of brochure in Cruz’s character’s purse, with a photo of sad, bruised woman and a list of hotline numbers, didn’t exist yet, as far as I know, leaving teenage Ana in a far more precarious and hopeless situation than even Cruz suggests.

This week I’m feeling blessed instead of overwhelmed by the towers of books all over the house. I’m back to reading Forsyth Harmon’s beautifully illustrated forthcoming novel Justine. I’m looking forward to a couple new books, like Brontez Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends and Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar. I’m still reading a couple very good books to review. And I’m about to dip back into some Barbara Pym (Jane and Prudence) and embark on Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series, which should keep me busy and distracted for a long while.

A few good things I read this week:

  • Shennette Garrett-Scott’s review of a new book on reparations for NYRB

  • Andrea Garbes’s piece in New York Magazine about women’s pandemic hopelessness and burden

  • Valerie Stivers’s delicious food in literature column in The Paris Review—about Andrea Camilleri’s books this week!