Making the Mistake of Writing on the Internet

A shaky shot opens with Megan Boyle sitting on her bed, explaining to the viewer that what follows will be a series of updates recorded after each trip to the gym over the course of her week. She flushed her Adderall five months before and worries that she has gained weight. The shot follows her to a mirror, streaked and dirty, as she examines her body, comparing this current form to some younger version that fit better into her clothes. She wants to be healthy. She is trying to improve. The self-negotiation begins. She wants to go to the gym every day but knows she won’t. She knows she won’t go every other day either, so she asks herself if she can go three times. Just three times in the next six days. Then, of course, she realizes that this is every other day. Her face fixed in apprehension, she reaffirms her goal. None of this has the informational value one might expect from a self-improvement project recorded for YouTube. There are no helpful tips or maxims for viewers to extract, no product sponsors or requests for subscriptions. What follows is failure, dejection, a transparent accounting of why does not meet her goals and how she has lied along the way, to herself and us. She finally makes it to the gym, and then again the next day. It’s not nothing. She’ll get better, she tells herself, a little bit more each day. 

For nearly a decade, Megan Boyle has amassed a body of work by displaying her life for the internet. This may not seem notable in a moment when the internet is littered with the careers of influencers and creators desperate to manufacture lives worthy of advertising dollars, but Boyle’s creations are guided by more inscrutable motives. Her work is informed by the aesthetic of an internet that predates the algorithms assigning dollar figures to every upload. She is a holdover from a time when blogging ecosystems hadn’t yet been smothered by new media companies eager to appropriate the cheap labor of hungry young writers. In 2009, Boyle fell into the orbit of Tao Lin’s Muumuu House, a publishing house interested in online ephemera trawled from social media, chat logs, emails, and blogs. In practice, Muumuu served as a venue for a cohort of writers unified in their detached affectations, unadorned style, and confessional writings. They were early recorders of the intrusive internet. Boyle soon had a published collection of poems compiled from the draft section of her blog, a following on Thought Catalog, a column in Vice. Her work garnered viral attention for its intimate revelations about her drug use and sex life: column-length reviews of her body parts, an account of everyone she ever slept with, a list of the most embarrassing moments in her life. This work was absurd and dissociative, full of references to the small artistic world she orbited, and uninterested in the critical assessments of outsiders.  

In early 2013, she undertook a project of staggering scope. Over five months, she would liveblog her experiences and thoughts. Half a decade later, those 350,000 words constitute a novel published this fall by Tyrant Books. Despite the grasping comparisons to Knausgård, this is not a work of autofiction. Liveblog is a novel in a much older sense of the word, an assortment of formless writing, a work that respects few rules or conventions. In another sense, it is a journal written before a live audience. Or maybe it is a confessional memoir, a secular accounting of one’s sins. Boyle suggests as much in her introduction that begins with a declaration: she will document everything in her life because she is alone and no longer feels ownership over a life being lived passively, unremembered and unremarked upon. This journal will be a memorial to her experience, a way of remembering what she does not want to forget. She warns her audience that it will not be interesting, she will not dress up for us, she will not write to entertain. As in her YouTube videos, Boyle hopes these diurnal records will cajole her into making better choices, but there is little evidence in these seven-hundred pages that a catalogued life offers much in the way of personal reform.

This transition from the internet to paperback is awkward. Gone are the exchanges between author and audience in the comment section that hung below the original text on Tumblr, where readers pushed their way into her life and the pages of Liveblog. The images and videos, tweets and polls, are dead. What is left is a rather claustrophobic encounter with the author’s gaze, stripped of social context, flattened out across a catalog of daily minutia. 

Liveblogseems more like an act of exhibition than a literary creation, performance art disguised as antiliterature. The book comes to us under-edited, uncondensed, undramatized. Freed from the artificiality of narrative, Boyle’s rendering of her life lacks the ironic distance between a public persona and a private self that has become the hallmark of a culture drowning in manufactured authenticity, in lives shoehorned into serialized content or memories refashioned as literature. As with life, the only coherence is the passage of time. Between the lists of daily errands, social interactions, and drug use are radical displays of vulnerability. Records of those kinds of thoughts we all wish we didn’t have, painful observations about her own limitations, about the failure of relationships, and confrontations with the many regrets that hung over her life during these months. 

Early in the liveblog, Boyle is living out the final days of an expiring lease with her ex as they ready their apartment for new tenants. Memories of her excitement of moving into the neighborhood and the potential of their relationship clash with the reality of their acrimonious final days. They fight. They drink, wake up after noon, have sex, and bicker like “children doing competitively angry things” (64). The fights spiral into punishing brawls. The boyfriend, who doesn’t want his name used in Liveblog, dismisses the project as a waste of time, for author and audience, and condemns her unprocessed openness as “an attack on your readers” (81). She thinks he’s bitter because he cannot find an audience. A frantic syntax conveys what the overly literal tone cannot, namely, the anger and inebriation fueling these clashes. At times, the reader becomes a stand in for him and what she cannot say to him in person. All this, of course, she writes publicly, in real time, knowing full well he could open the blog and see what she really wanted to say.  

Entanglements between her work and the lives of those she writes about are a persistent source of anxiety. A paranoia hangs over her communications with the people in her life. Are friends contacting her less since she started documenting everything she does? Are her parents reading what she wrote about their interactions? Did the computer repair guy google her and see that she thought about sleeping with him? She suspects so. At one point, a friend asks her to stop writing everything they say and do; he doesn’t like the anxiety of being constantly documented. She agrees, but of course she still records this. A new boyfriend is referred to only as [omitted]. Her mother reads of her drug use—the cataloging of drugs being so matter-of-fact that the reader will hardly notice the bump of heroin after she cleans the litterbox—and worries that Boyle is rendering herself unemployable by sharing so much on the internet.

Months into the project, Boyle herself begins to worry that her writings have altered her in some fundamental way, especially as this catalog of her life becomes her life. Lurking behind so many of her lacerating judgments about the state of her existence is a version of herself before she “made the mistake of writing on the internet and using drugs regularly” (241). Recollections of this past self frequently serve as a foil to her present condition. The remembered self is active whereas the author is passive, full of potential rather than the sum of squandered opportunities, carefree versus burdened by a drug habit. This life of hers threatens to become a spectacle documented in excruciating detail.

This tension between Boyle’s commitment to record her life and the anxiety of living with what she refers to as a “horrific permanent display” of herself is the heartbeat of Liveblog. It is palpable from the earliest pages until the project stutters and stalls toward an exhausted ending in the late summer months of 2013. The desire to remember justifies the project, but then accumulation of memories across these long months does not lead to self-improvement as she had hoped. Instead, Liveblogfeels like a slow wound the reader watches Boyle inflict upon herself. The experience is hypnotizing and discomforting. And the whole thing, all seven-hundred pages, raises questions about the value of documenting a life in real time. Boyle’s writing is not in the service of extractable truths. She is not fashioning memory into literary narratives. Instead, Boyle is grappling with the persistent stress—the alienation—of living online. She is pushing against the boundaries of what our online ecosystems ask each of us to do every day: share ourselves constantly for the voyeuristic curiosities of those near and far.  

Garbage Times/White Ibis

Thoughts on Sam Pink’s latest.

I first heard of Sam Pink and his latest pair of novellas, Garbage Times/White Ibis, in one of Megan Boyle’s vlogs. I added it to my reading list, and then forgot about him until about two weeks ago. In an act of manufactured coincidence, one of our great algorithmic overlords brought Boyle and Pink together again. This time, while pre-ordering her forthcoming Liveblog, Amazon suggested Garbage Times/White Ibis. Apparently, these two are Frequently Bought Together.

The connections between these two authors are likely obvious to one more versed in the contours of Alt Lit, as they were to the algorithms that directed me back to Garbage Times/White Ibis. I’m merely a tourist in this literary milieu. The body of work—bound by some constellation of geography, publishing houses, and social media—has struck me as a grungy forerunner to the ascendance of autofiction. The transgressive efforts of older millennials rendered unemployable by their commitment to art and drugs. Apolitical, apathetic, alienated.

This probably isn’t the fairest summation of such an extensive body of work, but for whatever its worth, Garbage Times/White Ibis feels different than other works I’ve encountered from this scene. Garbage Times captures, in the words of the narrator, “a moment in life on the way to being smeared I guess!” (78) The hard-up narrator finds himself elbow-deep in the filth and refuse of bar patrons, cohabiting a world with vermin of all shapes and sizes. Recently evicted, his new apartment sucks. Nothing works, and everything is backed-up. Violence and destitution serve as the white noise in the backdrop of somewhere Chicago. The narrator is the garbageman, at home with the mold and rats of the literal basement he emerges from in the opening pages of the novella. He teeters between moments of tenderness and mania. And still, he has farther to fall. He is a man who refuses to lose his manners as he waits in line to redeem a free fast food sandwich. A man convinced he could get anywhere in the country more easily than he could drag himself out to the suburbs for the next shit job. A man ready to blow away this old world he has become so mired in, and so tired of.

White Ibis, on the other hand, finds the narrator moving to the Florida with his girlfriend and cat. He is, “objectively, what one might call, you know, sort of unemployable” (31) and spends much of his time searching for work. He applies for the same jobs he had before, but for less money. As he describes it—and the experience of so many millennials who came of age during the recession—“sideways we go on this gradual lowering.” (65). He gets rejected for cashier jobs and refuses to swing a sign while wearing a bagel suit, despite his experience, for fear of dying in the Florida heat. He is a life of gigs, of part-time work, of projects. I found myself asking if his art was a byproduct of these circumstances, or a justification for them.

But all is not lost in the Sunshine State. The voice that has driven us forward so far seems softened. The mania is gone. So, too, is the violence and despair. One wonders whether his sudden adjacency to the country club cliques of his girlfriend’s family has opened up new avenues of existing in the world. One with relatives and girl scouts, gated-community socials and some distance from grinding poverty. It certainly offers a hilarious vein of observation for the protagonist as he encounters a charming cast of Floridians. And more to the point, Pink’s narrator now seems to be confronting his own feelings of inadequacy without laying waste to his soul. There is a certain humaneness in this depiction of a life filled with dead ends. And Pink’s narrator seems to find something sincere in the unexpected relationships he encounters down south, something that may help anchor a life outside of the ceaseless grind to make rent.

 

 

 

Hypernormalization

The English documentarian Adam Curtis recently appeared on an episode of Chapo Trap House to discuss his latest documentary, Hypernormalization. The sprawling interview explores the film’s many themes and influences, and I highly recommend listening to the episode if you can. Hypernormalization is a hypnotic film filled with historical juxtapositions of  Cold War politics, Soviet collapse, the internet revolution, the rise of Jihadi terrorism, and the post-9/11 world order. Curtis argues that the collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to an era of politics that wanted to change the world. What came after is an era of managed perceptions and risk avoidance. A world in which we are lied to by those with power, we know they lie, they know we know, and little changes. The powerful continue to pull off brazen crimes, and ordinary people are so far removed from power that even amidst universal outrage, nothing happens.

The film’s title is borrowed from a concept developed by Berkeley professor Alexei Yurchak in his 2006 book Everything was Forever, Until it was No More. Yurchak’s argument is historically contingent and more nuanced than one might suspect from Curtis’s appropriation. He argues that the near absolute control of language under Stalin allowed the dictator to act as a sort of grand arbiter over discourse, weighing the veracity of canonical texts and mediating national debates personally. Upon his death, no other figure could fill this role. Indeed, Khrushchev’s denunciations of the cult of personality around Stalin three years after his death ensured that no one would  ever command the same mediating influence over Soviet discourse. Fear of deviating from acceptable ideological positions combined with a lack of centralized control over language led to a performative shift in the 1960s and 70s. Without any means of arbitrating facts and opinions, state discourse became imitative and self-referential.  Citizens knew the official language of the state was essentially performative and superficial at this point, which created room for new and competing interpretations of the world in everyday life. So the collapse of the Soviet Union was both sudden and unpredictable to citizens whose lives had become unmoored from the language of their leaders. But once it happened, collapse was totally understandable given the depth of lies and distortions to which people had grown so accustomed.

This is the comparison Curtis introduces in his film, but whereas Yurchak points to a specific, exceptional historical period in which a national discourse was stripped of meaning after a breakdown of total control, our current discursive disintegration in the United States is harder to pinpoint. This is not a question of whether or not discursive traditions have eroded—they most certainly have. Much of our national political discourse seems so detached from the diverse experiences of people that the hypernormalization comparisons feels frighteningly appropriate. Accuracy accounts for little in  a society bifurcated by factionalism and apathy where voters are increasingly disillusioned with the undemocratic nature of wealth and politics.  Although he paints with a broad brush, Curtis’s general thesis identifies a fundamental threat to the future of politics: people are used to being lied to,  seeing politics respond ineffectually to the problems of their lives, and  accepting this as an routine feature of modern life.

To explain the origins of hypernormalization in the United States, Curtis points to America’s favorite war criminal, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger’s betrayal of President Hafez al-Assad of Syria and the death of pan-Arabism after the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord left the Palestinian issue unresolved and Syria isolated from its former Arab allies who leaned increasingly toward the West. Assad’s response in promoting a wave of suicide bombings and terror campaigns against American targets—including most famously the bombing of American marines in Beirut—presented the American foreign policy establishment with an intractable problem.

Unable or unwilling to respond to the complexity of the Palestinian problem, the Reagan administration turned instead to an international fiction. They invented a supervillain in the form of Muammar Qaddafi, whom the United States blamed for numerous acts of international terror despite evidence pointing towards Syria. Unlike Syria, Libya was relatively isolated from the Arab-Israeli conflict and a minor figure in world politics. For his part, Qaddafi wholeheartedly embraced the role as a means of reinvigorating his stalled movement and lackluster governance of Libya in the years since he seized power. Rather than tackle the messy complexities of Middle East politics, including a reckoning with the blowback of our own policies, America chose—and has consistently chosen—obfuscating moral frameworks to explain our imperial actions in the world. Curtis does not explain how these distilled moral dramas differed from the equally obfuscated narratives of Cold War conflict, but one can only do so much in a few hours.

I’m not sure I’m as convinced that the fictive international politics of our current world order are as important to the discursive meltdown underway in the United States. More important are the revolutionary changes in how we access and consume information.  The least developed theme in Hypernormalization—the rise of the corporate internet and information capitalism—offers the most compelling explanation for how something akin to the near total management of Soviet perceptions is underway through a completely different process in the West. Unlike the promises made by John Barlow and other early advocates of a free and open internet, the information revolution never escaped the influence of concentrated corporate power. Instead of unlocking human expression and creativity, the internet has created a silo culture of opposing and outraged partisan bubbles that exist in echo chambers, on platforms designed by Silicon Valley cartels to do just that.