(Soft Skull, 2022)
For any computer user, the opening sentence of Jordan Castro’s compact, brilliant and very funny first novel Novelist is decidedly accurate and not a little weird: “I opened my laptop, still waiting for my morning tea to steep, and tried to type in my password three times quickly before I got it right, my fingers awake snapping with the determination of a machine.” It’s those “snapping” fingers and that particular “machine” that I find slightly unsettling, a quiet but invigorating nudge that a user could be as “machine” as their computer. A new concept? Maybe not. But what a rich comedy Castro pulls off the idea. And, of course, what the Castro writer should to do next is to work on her novel, but where do her “snapping” fingers take her instead? A guess: “I immediately clicked on the Gmail icon…I hated checking my email first thing in the morning. It set a bad tone for the rest of the day. (I feel his pain.) And where do the things from there? Let’s say the “tone” doesn’t go up. Instead, he scrolls on Twitter, a site he “hates,” the same things he knows will keep him from writing.
Nevertheless, it clicks.
Castro’s writer, who remains anonymous, has mixed contempt for Twitter, even for its followers. But like a junkie, he needs his morning fix. And his contempt does not stop there. He swings between disdain and approval for his friends Li and Eric, and for a problematic writer named “Jordan Castro” (a minor meta-subplot that deftly avoids distraction), all of whom our narrator engages with, “multitasking.” all along, via email, text, Twitter, and of course eventually Facebook and YouTube – apparently any site, really, that will steal his attention and prevent him from working on his book (which is the very plot of this novel). Not to mention the contempt that our narrator feels for himself, practically trapped by social networks, activating his “brain like a slot machine”:
I had fragmented this way for years. The cumulative time I spent involuntarily scrolling through streams, watching the things I was more immersed in than chosen, was unfathomable… It felt like Twitter was taking a piece of my consciousness from me, sucking it all over the place where she was, and in a blurry way disturbing it, like an energy field, not a website, moving through the air towards me, while simultaneously pulling me out of me and “into” Twitter, merging the two into the airs.
And here we come back to Castro’s opening metaphor, the “machine”: “’I’ was somewhere inside myself, behind my outer face, my skin face. » ; “I shrunk into my second face, vision blurred, until my face felt like it was shivering; my lips were parted as I imagined my skin melting….
If this all sounds a little dark, it is. Type of.
But it’s also exuberant, light-hearted at the right times, and very, very funny. Castro closely catalogs nearly every step of his narrator’s writing process: from the careful preparation of hot tea, to pondering the composite possibilities of his likely marble kitchen counter, to pondering narrative theory and identity politics. All this before finally: “navigating the screen to Google Docs, where I then opened my novel” (on page forty-three!). Which doesn’t mean the narrator is finally starting to write properly. Even his toilet time is over for the deconstruction, culminating in a disarmingly hilarious twenty-two-page tour de force of our narrator’s morning shit.
Novelist pays explicit homage to its major influences, Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine and Thomas Bernhard Lumberjacks (both are named in its pages). And yet during The Mezzanine and Lumberjacks finding comedy in manic nostalgia and spleen, Novelist finds its comedy in the new patterns of self-hopping spawned by social media. Which is not exceptional for Castro, nor for his novelist. Perhaps that is why the novel is so moving. We know its sting. We are accomplices. Technology also attracts our attention. We’re all “multitasking” now.
Where are we?
In the recent study by journalist Johann Hari, Stolen Concentration: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deep Again, it completely rejects the romantic conception of “multitasking” in a world of smartphones and social media. Hari argues that we devote our attention to too many simultaneous gadgets and applications and, in turn, we miss real, focused meaning. At what price ? Hari thinks sadly: “Narcissism, it seems to me, is a corruption of attention. You could call it another death knell for the arts, and in a post-Kardashian world, we’ve probably all seen its players. And yet, Castro committed the unlikely act of tending to his art while including its corruption, a tradition all its own, making it all the more contemporary and comical. There is hope. Even as I type this, my Gmail window is open, as is my Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, and a draft of a new novel manuscript.