My initiation into the wonderful world of The Internet was, in retrospect, hilarious. I was 13, so this must have taken place sometime in 1998 or 1999. Swapping grainy, ultra-pixellated pornographic images via tenuous dial-up connection was already a well-established practice by this point, and the nerdiest of the nerds had already been arguing and trolling each other on usenet groups for several years. Chat rooms were also beginning to take off as bored misanthropes everywhere discovered a social outlet that didn’t trigger their agoraphobia. There are many olds on the internet who brag about being active on the internet during these dark ages of shitty html and no wireless. Being a preteen, I had only the barest inkling that any of this was happening. The extent of my computer use involved playing games on my grandma’s computer, writing terrible Buffy fan fiction, and experimenting with the wild world of fonts in MS Word. My dream as a blossoming young emo writer was to have one of my poems or short stories published in YM.
At 13, I was an awkward loner. I had girl “friends” in the sense that we would sometimes hang out if their cooler friends were busy. Kind of like Teen Girl Squad, except everyone else was a Cheerleader or a So-and-So, and I was a solid What’s-her-face. I was really into my writing, drawing, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I had no idea how to do makeup or wear a bra, and I frequently used words like “nifty” unironically in conversation. I suspect I was an embarrassment to my more precocious peers. As a result, I was usually made to feel unwelcome in the cooler realms of the playground, and ended up going to “the field” where usually hung out with the other weirdos who also didn’t have friends. They were all dudes. I also didn’t really understand gender segregation and pretty much wanted to be a boy, and didn’t understand why boys didn’t really seem to want a grl hanging around either, but these were like the zeta-males of the class, so I guess they just tolerated it.
It was during one of these peripheral playground attempts at companionship that I overheard two of these weirdos talking about a cool chat room they had discovered. I had missed some key parts of the conversation, I guess, but I knew what a chat room was and totally wanted to get in on this. So I started pressing them on this magical new realm of the internet. They got all shifty-eyed and wouldn’t say much about it, except that it was about animals. I was very naive, and also I LOVED animals. I had a huge collection of accessories, clothes and doodads with frogs and realistic wolves on them (in retrospect, this was probably also embarrassing for everyone around me).
Anyway, I was excited about the prospect of a website that was relevant to my interests. Next time I visited grandma’s, I went on the site right away, and was thrilled to see that everyone was pretending to be an animal. They had made up interesting names for themselves, too. I felt like I fit in. Mentally, I was still solidly in the realm of childhood make-believe and I was totally down with pretending to be a tiger or whatever. And there were so many friendly people trying to private message me! I didn’t really get why so many of them wanted to pretend we were licking each other’s tiger ears, or cuddling, or whatever, but I figured they were merely pretending to be doing authentic tiger things. It was several years before I came across the term “furries”, and thus discovered that FurNation was actually a chat website specifically for furries to meet, chat, and cyber with each other.
By the time I started university, I considered myself a pro at internet and technology, despite not really knowing what “DSL” was yet. I was beginning to navigate the brave new world of burning shit to CDs instead of floppy disks, and I had traded my Hotmail accounts for a shiny new Gmail username. I had created an unbelievably shitty Geocities site which I was very proud of, and I had been blogging for a few years on Diaryland and Livejournal. I had also decided to get “serious” about writing, and set out to create a portfolio, which I mostly posted online on websites like Strange Minds. After reading a few of my submissions, a classmate approached me and handed me a copy of Still Life With June by Canadian author Darren Greer. “This guy’s writing style reminds me of you,” he said. I asked why, and he just shrugged. Was it the angst? The disgruntled humour? The fact that the main character was gay? The fact that he was totally sad and delusional? To this day I have no idea. Doesn’t matter. I did enjoy the book. It was tragic, it was hilarious in some parts, and and infuriating in others. I still think about it.
One of the few details I remember about the novel was the laborious email conversations the narrator tried to have with another character. It always seemed so clumsy to me. The author included the “to”, “from” and “subject” fields in every single piece of correspondence, perhaps trying to capture that authentic reading-it-on-my-browser feel. The two characters hashed out some key plot details in those emails, if I recall correctly. I feel that it would have been so much more effective had they just met at Tim Horton’s and said everything in person. Instead, it felt like a shortcut, a way for the author to avoid trying to write dialogue for a fight between two really awkward people. If anything, the use of emails just broke up the flow of the narrative for me. I found that it forced the character’s communication into a stilted and impersonal form, in contrast to the rhythmic familiarity of good dialogue. Then again, I tended to be (and still try to be) the type of reader who gets absorbed in a book and enjoys the flow of the story rather than nitpicking the style. Perhaps seeing this new technology rendered in a novel — for the first time in my experience as a reader — was jarring in itself. Perhaps the email format interrupted the “flow”, or perhaps it just surprised me enough to make me stop and ponder the email as a narrative device. I’m tempted to give it another read, now that a decade has passed, to see if I still feel the same way.
What do you think?
I’m newly interested in finding authors who are able — or at least willing — to tackle emails, Google searches, chat rooms and maybe even online dating in their work. Ideally I’d like to read a novel in which it was done well, but hell, whatever. When I try to remember everything I’ve read in the past decade, I can’t think of one other book where the author uses the character’s emails at all. Some books mention the internet, yes, but I’ve yet to read a novel in which the main character is completely engrossed in it, or uses it as a key part of their daily activities, like so many people today. Outside of Greer’s novel, I’ve yet to see any other instances of plot developed via emails, or to take it a step further, dialogue delivered by texts and tweets and Tumblr. It seems like most writers just avoid it altogether. It’s an awkward endeavour, to be sure. I also wonder older writers just don’t understand the internet at all, and would rather stick to the days of rotary phones (or even tvs with tubes) so that they don’t have to try and fail at scripting authentic Tweets. Maybe that’s for the best, anyway. If readers wanted to read a poorly written dramatic story with large portions of it taking place over the internet, most of us would just log on to Twitter or maybe read the comments section of our favourite blogs. For me, at least, reading is a way to be entertained while escaping all of that.