Novels of the Frivolous Now

image from You’ve probably noticed that contemporary novelists don’t write about the internet much, even though it’s next to impossible to write a book without some heavy-duty web surfing, as Susan Orlean recently commented. Laura Miller thinks she has an explanation. She says American novelists are pulled in two different directions. The first is toward the immediate present, “The Way We Live Now” in Trollope’s words. Novels should somehow make sense of the teaming particulars of life as it is lived. At the same time, novelists are expected to provide a “museum-quality depth” of experience that expressly repudiates the emptiness of contemporary culture. Miller explains,

The further literature is driven to the outskirts of the culture, the more it is cherished as a sanctuary from everything coarse, shallow and meretricious in that culture. It is the chapel of profundity, and about as lively and well visited as a bricks-and-mortar chapel to boot. Literature is where you retreat when you’re sick of celebrity divorces, political mudslinging, office intrigues, trials of the century, new Apple products, internet flame wars, sexting and X Factor contestants – in short, everything that everybody else spends most of their time thinking and talking about.

Miller goes on to suggest that a few novelists are groping toward a reconciliation of these two demands and incorporating the internet into their stories. The main characters in Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City gather almost every evening around a PC screen to place eBay bids on “chaldrons,” objects that only seem to exist in cyberspace. 

Chronic City captures the fluidity of identity in the internet age, but this remarkable novel aside, most of the examples Miller lists use the internet as a plot device. Just as we haven’t yet seen the definitive 9/11 novel (and probably never will), we still don’t have the Sister Carrie of the internet age, i.e., a novel that could only have written now.


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