Phones and Fiction

photo(94)“You say you are quite prepared to write novels in which people go around with personal electronic devices in their pockets” writes JM Coetzee to Paul Auster.  “I must say I am not.  The telephone is about as far as I will go in a book, and then reluctantly.  If people are continually going to be speaking to one another at a distance, then a whole gamut of interpersonal signs and signals, verbal and non-verbal, voluntary and involuntary, has to be given up.  Dialogue… just isn’t possible” (Here and Now).

Last month, the Guardian ran a piece on the 40th anniversary of the mobile phone and the likelihood that few writers would be toasting this particular milestone.  Not only are phones annoying but they considerably undermine a number of literary devices.  Had Janet Leigh had a Nokia to hand, it writes, Hitchcock’s Psycho would have been a very different film indeed.  While science fiction has always been largely dependent on technology, contemporary fiction’s relationship with it is somewhat more fraught.  The advent of smartphones and Google have increasingly diminished the plausibility of mistaken identity for example, or characters getting lost or finding themselves in a position where they are unable to call for help.

Rather than avoid these concerns, Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First plunges head-first into them, creating a plot that is entirely predicated on the process of mistaken identity in the digital era, or consensual identity theft, as it may somewhat paradoxically be called.

Leila has been asked to assume the online life of Tessa in order to facilitate the latter’s quiet exit from the world without causing undue distress to her friends and family.  A corollary to this rather unusual transaction, is that Leila begins to participate in an ongoing Facebook, email and instant messenger flirtation with one of Tessa’s suitors, which gradually and rather creepily spills over into the material world.  After Googling the unsuspecting gentleman in question and ascertaining not only which London chambers he works for, but also what he looks like, Leila is able to sit herself on a park bench opposite his office, wait for him to go to lunch and subsequently follow him.  And while he unwittingly eats his cheese and onion crisps, he remains blissfully unaware of the fact that the chubby track-suited nerd leering at him is the same person with whom he has been exchanging electronic sweet-nothings.

This is but one example within the book, but it clearly identifies how Moggarch, rather than shying away from the interference of technology in fiction, fully utilises it as a means for artfully developing new forms of plot and character development and character interaction.

That said, I didn’t really like the book, but I think this says more about me than any basis for literary critique.  The protagonist Leila, is awkward, hyper-rational and extremely difficult to relate to and while this is, I suspect, precisely the point, it still made for difficult reading in my opinion.  I also found it rather slow, that is up until the final twenty pages or so when it becomes quite a page-turner; but this is ultimately too late for redemption.

These subjective quibbles aside, the most salient issue for me was the jarring influence of technology.  I am an old prude for saying this I realise, but I simply am not comfortable with digital parlance in my fiction.  It is something far too quotidian (in the same sense that a character washing their hands or going to the toilet might be) to read about, as well as being both clunky and extraneous to the more captivating realm of thought, feeling and interaction which fixates me in novels.  In Kiss Me First, the technology is not extraneous, – it is in fact central to the plot – but somehow it still jars me.  It gives me the same sensation as when someone sends me a message that incorporates terms like LOL, or writes an email in a professional context that makes use of 😉 in the sign-off.  It effectively creates both a schism and a blurring of worlds; the pretense of professional interaction for example, is jabbed at and broken down by these snippets of misplaced intimacy (i.e. ;)), to a point which evaporates the distinction between professional and social spheres.  Similarly for me in fiction, the seamless world of literary construction (however closely it is supposed to resemble the modern reality) is interrupted and broken down by the appearance of technology-based behaviour.  When Leila Googles a term she is unfamiliar with or consults her Google maps, I feel as if my reading is being cut short by an advertisement.

At the risk of sounding mawkish, this is simply too much reality for my tastes.  Just because I use it, doesn’t mean I want to read about it in my fiction.

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