The novel is the perfect story form for our lives online

So much of my life is mental, and the novel is the best form for telling that story.

Last week, I watched a girl I used to know unfollow a guy she had dated in high school after he announced that he was engaged. By “watched” I mean noticed that she didn’t like his picture. In the past, Instagram always had told me that she liked his posts. So, I then scrolled through her follow list to see if he was there. He wasn’t. Why did I do this? I don’t know. But I did. I wanted to have that information because a current friend and I discuss this girl’s Instagram’s in person. Now to us, she is a character in a television show that we watch on our phones. We texted about this development. (The unfollow, for what it is worth, is interesting because she is married and has a baby. )

I forwarded my friend the post from the boy on Instagram DM. She texted me back an hour later with more dirt: untagged photos of them on Facebook. We are detectives. We are nosy. We are people.

Conversations are never in one place anymore. With my closest friends our conversations span Instagram DM, Texts, emails, G-chats, Slack conversations, Twitter DMs, and group chats. We are discussing the world we interact with where we interact with it, which is to say everywhere online. But there’s more to our communication online than that. Our relationships exist both in person as people and as entities online. The time we spend on our screens are as much a part of our daily lives as our actual interactions with real people. My following of this girl and her ex-boyfriend is a social circle I am haunting: apart of in observation, but no participation.

This is a massive problem for most forms of storytelling. Music has no chance to dissect our use of the Internet. A television show has to show animated bubbles popping up on the screen. A movie might flash a photo of an Instagram posted. But this is disruptive to the narrative’s natural flow, and it cannot portray our use of the internet in any real way. Because we, the protagonist, don’t just see a photo of this girl who unfollowed and that’s it. We see it and we draw on all of this background story, all of these other things to decide whether something is interesting, or hurts our feelings, or changes our mind. Movies don’t want to portray the truth about how I hang out with my best friend which is that often I just watch her scroll through her Instagram.

The novel is in a perfect position to become the dominant voice of storytelling in this decade.

The drama that happens in our phones is subtle. It is internal. It is… unspoken. There is a shame to our behavior privately online that is interior. Novels (and extremely good non-fiction reporting) give us access to that interiority that no other form of storytelling can, they can accurately (and interestingly) live in our actual present world.

Take this passage from Halle Butler’s Jillian, which I read this weekend and really liked. In it, one of the protagonists, Megan, is dragging the personal website of a 30 Under 30 protege design girl named Carrie who she met at a party and who her boyfriend wants to work with:

I make things, gee-wow. You think you’re an artist? Do you really think this blog is a representation of art, that great universalizer? That great transmigrater? This isolating schlock that makes me feel like I have to buy into you and your formula for happiness? Work as a freelance designer, grow beets, travel, have lots of people who like you, and above all have funsies! […]

How could someone not understand that other people could be unhappy? What kind of callous, horrible bullshit was that to say to a bunch of 20-year-olds, particularly when this was the time in life when things were even more acutely painful than they were in high school, that nightmare fuck, because now there were actual stakes and everyone was coming to grips with the fact that they’re going to die and that life might be empty and unrewarding. Why even bring it up? Why even make it part of your mini bio?

She copied and pasted Carrie’s bio into an email to [her boyfriend] and bolded the part about not understanding pain. The subject line was “see?” and the message was, “A little callous, don’t you think?”

The characters in Butler’s book are aggressively terrible, endlessly hateable. The book is told in a tight 3rd person, and she uses it very effectively overall. But in this scene, I realized that some of the hottest books right now, are taking our lives online seriously and using them as fodder for plot advancement.

Everyone is always saying the novel is dead, but maybe the novel is just trying to be the wrong thing. When we talk about the “modern” novel or the “Millennial” novel, we aren’t usually talking about a kind of frantic tone or the kind of virtue signaling that tells us that the characters —like us— are extremely online. The novels that win awards are ones that often eschew modernity: that write their scenes as if the modern world can be discarded, as if what happens online is irrelevant to some other in person reality.

But if the novel’s job is to render the world as it actually is right now, shouldn’t it be claiming the space no other artistic means can: the interiority of our lives on the Internet? the struggle of constant online presence? I don’t think we’ve gotten very many of these novels yet. Jillian does a few things with the internet, but not as many as I would expect from two main characters who have desk jobs.

Hannah Gerson wrote a very good piece in The Millions a few years ago about the lack of modern technology in modern fiction (text messages, lol). She goes through a half dozen very good reasons this might be happening: everything from the age of novelists, the time it takes for a novel to come out, and the format of the form.

But it just feels like there is so much space in the novel form —to me at least—to be the only medium truly covering what it means to be fully online. I am waiting with bated breath for the first TikTok protagonist, the first novel about an Instagram Influencer, the first main character to be cancelled. (If you know of novels like this, please send me recs!)

I want the subplots of a novel to happen the way subplots often happen in life: with a girl we barely know unfollowing a guy, with a finstagram being found, with a 13 minute long vlog revealing that she was never a vegan after all!

That’s enough of these thoughts! Happy Tuesday. On Friday, the Subscriber only edition will be about how we (me) organize books!