On an Emerging Literature for the Digital Information Age:
A Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Horn, W. W. Norton, 2013
The Circle by Dave Eggers, Random House LLC, 2013
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon, Penguin, 2013
The total social and psychological impact of the Internet is still too early to chart – its rapid suffusion into the fabric of daily experience occurs at a pace so quick and seamless that its effects are rendered almost imperceptible. It’s an understatement to say that we live in a digital information age. Today’s emerging corporate powers are web-based – Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter – and the great concerns of our time rely on the Internet’s mass communication tools – Wikileaks, the NSA-Snowden scandal, the Arab Spring. Imagining the 21st century without such technology is impossible, yet we often forget the influence that this medium has on its messages. Scientists, clinical psychologists, and economists have addressed such topics, yet an intellectually rigorous humanistic and creative vision has yet to gain widespread attention and focus.
Works of literary fiction are appropriately suited for understanding the relationship between form and content, a question that is always addressed in a creative act like writing. In what one might prematurely call the literary subgenre of “Internet fiction,” three recently published novels address the personal, social, and world-historical roles of the ever-expanding network of dot-coms, dot-govs, social media, and private invite-only networks. Dara Horn’s A Guide for the Perplexed, Dave Eggers’ The Circle, and Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge are all situated in the no-man’s-land between the virtual and the real, and tell interconnected stories of coexistence and struggle in both computer servers and the human mind.
Dara Horn, a novelist popular in Jewish circles and beyond, writes again in her trademark genre, making ample use of Jewish history that in the past has seen her address Chagall and the art world (The World To Come) and Jews in the Civil War (All Other Nights). This time around, she ties Moses Maimonides (the author of the original Guide for the Perplexed), the biblical Joseph, and the Cambridge scholar Solomon Schechter into a story about memory, loss, family, and technology. The novel’s protagonist, Josephine Ashkenazi, is the creator of a popular computer program that stores all possible information about a person – a kind of digital aggregator of human life and memory. The program is appropriately called Genizah, referencing the location where Jewish holy texts – or, as often is the case, anything written in Hebrew characters – are stored and later discarded properly. By creating a palimpsest of parallel historical stories, Horn uses Josephine’s revolutionary technological innovation to explore the limits and the risks of the god-like power to fully record memory. Kidnapped in Egypt while on a business trip to the modern library in Alexandria, Josephine is forced to reengineer her own program for the kidnapper’s desires – to disrupt the Egyptian police force’s computers, and to help create a database for the kidnapper’s dead son. Horn’s treatment of a genizah, both in its original and fictional meanings, renders it as a means of escaping death and obsolescence through a kind of written record. As the various narratives overlap and interact with each other, we learn that too much memory and record keeping can be overwhelming and damaging, keeping us from appreciating the present. Horn treats contemporary technology – and its possible future permutations – in a generally optimistic light. While Josephine ambiguously steps back from the totalizing forces of Genizah, Horn’s novel seeks to identify contemporary obsessions with documentation with the pasts’ own methods at preserving memory. A literary equivalent of Lucky Charms cereal, the novel’s nuggets of Jewish history and trivia fit in fairly well with a sugary but ultimately redemptive plot.
Dave Eggers, an accomplished figure in the contemporary literary world, is best known for his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and as the founder of the indie publishing house McSweeney’s. His latest novel The Circle, takes the premise of a personal panopticon – an all-seeing, all-recording eye – to an Orwellian fever pitch as it tracks the rise of the totalitarian tech monopoly called “The Circle.” A fictional hodgepodge of Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter and other Silicon Valley staples, Eggers’ creation begins as a close relative to these familiar websites. Yet, with a few dubious leaps of faith and the benefit of unreflective and passive characters, The Circle rapidly morphs into a consumerist, social-media fueled Big Brother industry. The novel tracks the career of Circle employee Mae Holland, the bland and unsympathetic anti-heroine, who quickly rises through the company and its various social rankings (the more involved and interconnected you are on The Circle, the higher your PartiRank). As the novel progresses and the company introduces their new motto, “Privacy is Theft,” Mae becomes “fully transparent” via a webcam worn like a necklace, with thousands of viewers logging in to observe her daily life. Unlike The Truman Show, however, whose protagonist is an innocent victim seeking to escape, the reader comes to despise Mae and her thoughtlessness in taking the bait in destroying her own privacy for the sake of others’ entertainment. It is not difficult to detect Eggers’ moralistic voice behind the smattering of unfulfilling and clichéd reality-checks from Mae’s parents and ex-boyfriend on the danger of an all-consuming Internet transparency. Nevertheless, Eggers’ half-baked characters and derivative plot create a lopsided novel that offers an unanalyzed and shallow criticism of the Internet’s culture of over-sharing.
The last in this trio of recently published internet-based novels is the vastly unique and complex Bleeding Edge, the most recent accomplishment of Thomas Pynchon – the infamous recluse whose favorite subjects include conspiracy theories, pop culture references (real and imagined), and unmatched verbal wit. Bleeding Edge tracks the absurd travails of Upper West Side private investigator Maxine Tarnow as she follows the money trail of a suspicious Internet start-up called hashslingrz. The conspiracy theory-laden novel, set in the aftermath of the dot-com boom and amidst 9/11, takes a look at the internet’s earlier days as a frontier of unexplored potential – often through organized crime, ever-changing virtual social worlds, and the abyss of the Deep Web and its slowly creeping “bleeding edge.” Internal complexity and interconnectedness, which characterize the World Wide Web in this work, are typical Pynchon-esque elements that have appeared in some form or another among his novels of the past 50 years. It should be of no surprise, then, that a novel about such subjects lacks any conclusive ending. Bleeding Edge, more than anything, fully grasps the absurdity in the Internet Age’s most alluring and byzantine activity – the blind chase of clicking link after link. While this work represents the earliest historical snapshot of the Internet among the three novels discussed here, it reads as both a prophetic and contemporary commentary on the power of technology much more than the other two novels’ futuristic bend. Global terror networks, money laundering, government leaks, tapped phones, and Cold War leftovers all make their appearances in this novel as often as they appear on the front pages of The New York Times. Although the plot is winding, scatterbrained, circular, and a bit redundant, any writer that can successfully reference the Zionist folk song “Zum Gali Gali” and Nelly’s hip-hop hit “Ride Wit Me” on the same page is certainly worth paying attention to.
Horn, Eggers, and Pynchon’s works represent vastly different approaches to one of the most significant social, political, and psychological forces in the 21st century – the black hole of information known as the Internet. Such topics are sure to become more relevant as time lurches forward, and authors of literary fiction are sure to write more about them. But despite the remarkable contemporary relevancy, these three novels still seem unripe. Sure, they address concepts like over-sharing, persistent documentation, and new modes of modern vice. And they all follow female characters trying to come to terms with a constantly evolving patriarchal-technological complex. However, the fascination with the Machine forsakes a more focused and encapsulating vision of the human element, something that will hopefully be addressed as this subgenre matures. We see this error most clearly in Eggers’ The Circle, yet even Horn’s historical and familial drama or Pynchon’s colorful cast of equally criminal and comical characters fail to fully sustain and understand the relationship between man (in these cases, woman) and the Internet.
So what lies ahead for the literature of a digital information age? These three novels, despite their flaws, are promising beginnings in what one hopes will become a critically inspiring and aesthetically meaningful literature on the information revolution. But such reflection cannot exist in fiction alone – it requires an intellectual discourse devoted to these issues, which we can see emerging in the various “technology” columns of newspapers and in Wired magazine, for example, though they do not seem to have yet reached full intellectual maturity. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, however influential, are hardly the Lewis Mumfords, the Frank Lloyd Wrights, or the Susan Sontags of the Internet. As we more fully appreciate the monumental psychic shift our present age is experiencing, it should not be surprising if and when a class of ideological, articulate, and devoted critics of technology emerge in the Western intellectual tradition. After all, throughout human history, and as is likely the case today, the creative act often precedes the intellectual one.
\\ MAX DANIEL is a senior in the GS/JTS Joint Program and Editor in Chief of The Current. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.