In the Guardian interview Hannah helpfully linked us to, Kobek professes awareness of his limitations: “Every era has its unanswerable questions, so maybe the thing to do, which is what I did in the book, is just to acknowledge the inherent hypocrisy of it all. Though maybe that’s an easy dodge.” I’m trying to think about the Guardian’s criticism, which I think is in line with issues made by my fellow posters this week, and Kobek’s self-awareness about taking an easy way out, which is akin to stating “this is a bad novel,” in terms of how Bellamy and Killen describe the New Narrative movement. Specifically, I’m thinking of Camille Roy’s belief that she could suddenly “engage critically with my whole life in writing” (v) and of the writers’ concluding conviction that New Narrative “presaged the fragmentation, the information overload, the frenetic bleed of emotions, and the general mess of the digital era. The writing was anticipating a new era of multivalence, a new concept of the very boundaries of selfhood, and when the new era finally arrived, we had in some mystical fashion midwived it” (xx). Contrasting Kobek’s professed self-awareness of his limitations with the New Narrativists’ naïve (?) earlier conviction that they might be on the cusp of something groundbreaking I wonder why we expect that I Hate the Internet might be able to achieve anything at all. Moreover, what does it mean if it can’t? Mike McGurl reminds us that, even in the Internet age, the phenomenologies of reading and web browsing remain distinct. Is it not the surprising, then, that a print book about the Internet can tell us nothing about how better to use the Internet?
The Wikipedia page, which I feel comfortable citing for this kind of subject matter, states that I Hate the Internet “is presented as a non-linear narrative with tangential commentary on real-world people and events, as well as the story of Adeline and her friends.” I’m quoting Wikipedia because someone—presumably a fan of the novel, if not Kobek himself—was so impressed by Kobek’s distortion of the timeline (reminiscent of the New Narrativists’ mistrust of absolute narrative and preference for modernist stylistic strategies, p. ix) that they saw fit to commit it to the novel’s encyclopedia entry. What strikes me most about the particular non-linearity here, though, is that the novel ends up exactly where it starts: Adeline, on the side of the street on the cusp of 2014, being called a “Drp slut” on Twitter. In order to explain the relevance of “Drp slut,” Kobek’s narrator turns not to the future, to Adeline response or personal enlightenment at the hands of an Internet commenter, but embarks instead on an exegesis of Adeline’s past. This bad novel, beyond alerting us to our hypocrisies, does nothing to make us “more woke” in the future because it admits no future. Drunk and alone, surrounded by fanboys of 1960s fiction, Adeline does not look so much into the year ahead as she does stare blankly at her phone and dwell firmly on what has transpired in her past.
I’m wondering what concretely the Internet has changed. Our self-consciousness about our own wokeness, perhaps? Or the target of our vitriol? The New York Times Review of Books ran a piece about I Hate the Internet that concluded, “Like all jeremiads, ‘I Hate the Internet’ is far better at posing questions than formulating answers. You will sometimes wish that a woman, or an African American, had composed these acid observations about feminism and race.” New Narrative’s “critical engagement with life in writing” seemed also to be more about questions than answers, especially once the 1990s hit and AIDS made concrete that words cannot materially change the world. From McGurl’s perspective, this (basically) self-published book has done its job if it makes us feel good about having intellectually grappled with the ills of our time (I appreciate Jordan with his marginal yeps). This has, in its own way, been if not pleasing then at least affirming content. The Internet casts a wider net than a bookshop in San Francisco in the 70s, so maybe we’re more sensitive now to specifically a woman or specifically someone with eumelanin in the basal cells of their epidermis raising questions about women or about eumelanin (or maybe pointing out someone’s XY chromosomes or lack of eumelanin makes us feel better about ourselves, either way). And certainly, now we have racism and sexism in the digital realm to engage critically. We’ve moved past in-person bigotry to attack each other at great distances with more anonymity. At its most basic level, though, I wonder if the questions we’re asking I Hate the Internet to solve really do require turning to the past for answers. Kobek traces the histories of the corrupt institutions he’s alerting us to across decades, even centuries. Did the iPhone change everything? Maybe the way we talk about everything, now that the blurred line between public and private, self and social, that New Narrative pointed towards has effectively been crossed.
Perhaps it’s telling that Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy make cameos in Kobek’s novel by creating the space for Adeline to commit her Unforgivable Sin. The Unforgivable Sin is not airing slightly dated, controversial opinions, but only not realizing that you are being recorded when doing so. The conversation hasn’t changed, any more than has the cast of characters. The only difference seems to be that, the lesson of New Narrative learned, we’ve got to reckon now with the new problem of how our technology affects the way we deliver our diatribes.