Honey, there's an emoji in my novel!

Instead of technology superannuating literature once and for all, it seems to have created a new space in our minds for it, says Charles Finch
Last Updated 28 December 2019, 18:45 IST

Until the 2010s, if you were reading, it generally meant you weren’t doing it online. Though change had been in the offing, this was the decade that irreversibly altered how we consume text — when the smartphone transformed from a marvel to a staple. Suddenly, the sharpest cultural and political analysis came in the form of a distracted boyfriend meme. Racists deployed a playful cartoon frog to sugar their messages. From the Arab Spring onward, the best reporters were often panicked bystanders with Twitter accounts.

One of the strangest effects of this transition was that it rekindled very ancient human behaviours. The scroll, one of the earliest technologies for reading, returned, as did the oldest form of writing, the ideogram, reincarnated in the emoji panel. In this weird, narrow sense, opening a paperback in 2019 was more modern than texting with your friends.

Return of the scroll

That seems ridiculous right until it spills over into being obvious. After all, who could contest the idea that communications, behind a ceaseless inflow of data, have been continually evolving to target ever more primitive brain functions? Think of the obscurely nauseous casino ping of tugging downward on Instagram and seeing it refresh with a notification, the instant dopamine rush. The scroll and the ideogram died out because of their simplicity, only to have been revived for that reason. The scroll is a friction-less waterfall on the screen. And while an entire alphabet of ideograms would be unusably bulky, a handful of key ones, scattered into our language, condense thousands of complicated reactions into a few dozen universal symbols.

It would seem as if few times in history could be less hospitable to literature. Not even 20 years ago we mostly read about things in lag, on thin slices of tree, whereas now we do — well, less and less of this. Yet instead of technology superannuating literature once and for all, it seems to have created a new space in our minds for it.

The richest example of this may be the fiction that, even from this minimal distance, seems destined to define the last decade; the work of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard. In overlapping moments, these two Europeans’ respective multi-volume novels won huge rapid fame — for being highly personal, very long and perhaps more than anything for the unusual, almost guilty intensity with which people devoured them.

A new, dangerous way

Inevitable in retrospect, at the time it seemed like a shocking development. The novel thrives on social repercussions, and the fiction that was fashionable during the first 10 years of the century was no exception. Writers produced big, clever, glossy sagas of family and friendship, in a fretfully bravura style that reached its fullest expression in books like ‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith; ‘The Corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen; and ‘A Visit From the Goon Squad’ by Jennifer Egan. They were irradiated by the conviction that an author could observe life at the turn of the millennium and repackage it for readers with a set of decisive, fine-grained interpretations.

By contrast, Knausgaard and Ferrante promise so little. But they give it. Each recounts, in the close first person, the inside of a human life. That’s something innumerable writers have done, obviously, but they seemed to do it in a newly dangerous way — with a pitiless, dispassionate modesty of ambition. Neither narrator extrapolates larger truths from experience. Both trust themselves as far as their own fingertips.

The effect this method had on me, and I believe on many people, was one of immediate trust and identification. To read Knausgaard or Ferrante, or indeed other writers of what critics have called autofiction, such as Teju Cole and Rachel Cusk, was less to enter a story than to spend a while as another person.

Of course, other, equally gifted writers sought to capture the era too, and it could easily be that we will remember the 2010s for producing the lovely slipstream fiction of authors like George Saunders, Kelly Link and Colson Whitehead, a subtler cousin of magical realism, and thus perhaps more closely reflective of how truly surreal things have gotten.

Autofiction is here to stay

Yet what makes autofiction seem essential is that enough people felt an attraction to its length, gravity and honesty to make it, implausibly, into a phenomenon. That must mean something. But what? Perhaps the explanation lies in how starkly whole Knausgaard’s and Ferrante’s books appear to be. The lives we lead on our phones and computers are at once irresistible and uneasy — jittery, depressive, deceptive. As our social lives, typically the dominion of the novel, have partly mutated into a flow of adjacent but isolated images and captions, autofiction’s careful human pace is a protest that no matter how it may seem, we still haven’t quite merged with our computers. Not yet.

Many of us now alive are in the unique position of having been so both before and after the revolution of the internet. We’re a lost group — to me, anyway, even now none of my technological habits seem inevitable. There’s still a sense that this vast binge of novelty will stop and we’ll arrive at some levelheaded equilibrium between then and now. That’s no doubt delusional.

Still, writers like Knausgaard and Ferrante, suggest something startling and comforting: that in each of us is reposed something too deep to name , and which for that very reason has survived, for now, the glittering surfaces of our age. A self, I suppose.

(Published 28 December 2019, 18:34 IST)

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