Tech Devolution

In the Belly of the Fail Whale

By Richard Byrne

Near the conclusion of Jarett Kobek's new novel, I Hate the Internet, a writer bellows his farewell diatribe down into a fog-shrouded San Francisco from Twin Peaks as he prepares to leave for Los Angeles:

You have taken the last true good thing, the initial utopian vision of the Internet, and you have perverted it into a series of interlocking fiefdoms with no purpose other than serving advertisements. Listen, San Francisco, I was there. I know what the Internet was like before people used it to make money. I am the only literary writer in America with a serious tech background! I am the only literary writer in America who ran Slackware 1.0 on his 386sx! I am the only literary writer in the world who coded his own BBC software in badly dented C ! I am the only literary writer who can use the ncurses library!

Novelists have made excellent crash test dummies in the collision of literary culture with the tech revolution. Worse yet, the novel's prestige has been mangled and crushed by the same impact, perhaps more than any other literary form. The money's been gone for a while, but now the aspiration is vanishing too. Does anyone even think about the Great American Novel anymore? It's been swallowed up in the blank Kindle light.

Kobek isn't taking the novel's accelerated downward spiral in recent decades with equable composure, however. I Hate the Internet (We Heard You Like Books, 280 pages, $15.95) is the work of a literary mind bent on getting mad and getting even. And while the novel clutches a bit at an abiding nostalgia for a world before Twitter and YouTube, there isn't a whiff of Luddism or despair in Kobek's giddy carnival of mockery and mimesis.

As the title suggests, tech capital's relentless and oblivious rapacity take a fierce beating. But there are salvos aplenty to spare for the utter caprice of racial categories, the vapidity of art celebrity, and the morals and culture of a place calling itself San Francisco. At its heart, I Hate the Internet is a very black comedy of 404 Not Found errors.

Kobek's sharp eye for the complicity of liberal thought in its own decimation by the tech revolution is at the core of his enterprise. Tech's omnivorous and invasive nature intoxicates true believers and packet switch predators alike with delusions of beneficence and omniscience. And the hype that follows in their wake suffocates and sickens. Yet in Kobek's view, thinking people possessed enough high ground to break it all up – or at least make it better. But they ceded that ground long ago themselves with the whimper of sloppy thinking or plain ignorance:

THE CURIOUS THING was that Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Blogspot, a media platform owned by Google, were stomping grounds of self-styled intellectual and social radicals. It was where they were talking. It was where, they believed, the conversation was shifting.

They were typing morality lectures into devices built by slaves on platforms of expression owned by the Patriarchy, and they were making money for the Patriarchy. Somehow this was destroying the Patriarchy.

So there's always hope.

Kobek has earned his acidic take on literary culture's tech fail by setting up camp on the fault line between them. He got his start as a writer in the webzine scene of the nineties and oughties – a fractious culture of outsized enthusiasms, warped conspiracies, and bilious, often juvenile, hatreds.

I first stumbled on Kobek's work via his self-published collection of the works of visionary English Ranter Thomas Tany, Theauraujon Speaks!: The Collected Work of Thomas Tany (2008). Theauraujon Speaks! is verbatim transcription of the political and religious tracts of an inspired lunatic who circumcised himself and marched on Parliament in 1654 with a rusty sword. It's no surprise that Kobek was drawn to Tany, whose mercurial flashes of brilliance amidst the utter zaniness and incoherence of the post-English Civil War era would have made him a star in the webzine world.

Indeed, Kobek's first book, HOE #999: Decennial Appreciation and Celebratory Analysis (Semina No. 6, Book Works, 120 pages, $19.95), deployed one of the most freewheeling, obscene and conspiratorial webzine outbursts he issued as a ringleader of the textfile zine posse "Hogs of Entropy" as a cudgel to batter the publishing industry. (Among the book's most diverting endeavors is Kobek's attempt to farm out an "analysis" of his juvenilia to Asian essay farms.) The overall effect is like watching a talented kid work a beginner's chemistry set. Shit breaks. Shit burns. Shit reeks. But his knack for using these tools is readily apparent.

Kobek's breakthrough moment was a dazzling and unsparing novella, ATTA (semiotext(e): interventions, 200 pages, $12.95), released in 2011 on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. ATTA is succinct, fierce, and indelible – channeling the author's appetite for emotional and intellectual tumult into powerful reflections on the nature of terrorism.

Told largely in the voice of 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta, ATTA's ventriloquism is sheer bravura. It captures not only the rigid moralizing and death worship at the heart of Al Qaeda, but also its roots in Atta's theological idealism. (Atta's master's thesis in architecture proposed razing the modernist buildings in an old quarter of the Syrian city of Aleppo to create a more humane living environment and restore the city's historic Islamic essence.)

A brief digression on the history of Aleppo, which loses its "Crusader name" in favor of "Halab" in Atta's telling, gives you the idea of the complexity of thought and exquisite coloration of tone that Kobek pulls off:   

More people die in Halab than you can imagine living, their bodies give the ground sediment of human clay, fertilize it for future growth. The city, like a seething tangle of green, erupts into being. A sudden explosion of life, small but crawls outward. Generations upon generations fornicate, their lust births bodies that fornicate anew. The city's commerce attracts people from afar. A need for new homes. Always the need for new homes. The buildings move beyond their humble inner core, tumble outwards into new neighborhoods. Soon there are 1000s of structures. More people come, more civilization. They live and they laugh and they love and they die. Bodies go into the ground. The ground feeds the city, a stone harvest of raw materials for buildings the color of sand. The city is alive, an organic mass that can not stop its growth, building with the dead for the sake of the living.

Kobek's next book, BTW (Penny Ante Editions, 164 pages, $12.95) followed quickly on the heels of ATTA. The novel is a caustic and slightly breathless portrait of the latest generation of graduates from expensive liberal arts universities left clueless after they finish parading literature and films like show ponies through the dressage of literary theory. The novel's crammed with bad faith, worse sex and a sublimely wretched excess played out largely in a Los Angeles where Hollywood Boulevard is both world and stage:

Aisha fell to her knees, vomiting a thin yellow liquid across the Walk of Fame. My hands pulled back her hair. I held up her head.

"Poor Mark Goodson," said, reading the name splattered with her bile. "Whoever he was and whatever he did, the man doesn't deserve this."

Aisha rose from her knees. I pointed to the next star.

"Ronald Reagan," I said. "Ten seconds more and you would have made a political statement."

Two characters in BTW – J. Karacehennem (a fairly obvious stand-in for Kobek himself) and Adeline (aka M. Abramovitch Petrovitch) – also find their way into the center of the proceedings in I Hate the Internet. Kobek pairs them as a comic double act of knowing and obliviousness in the new book, more Cassandra and Pandora than Rowan and Martin.

Karacehennem glides through I Hate the Internet musing darkly, doom saying, and clutching vainly to the last disintegrating bits of the old weird San Francisco he loves. Adeline is a talented and successful (even legendary) comic book artist and social media naif undone by others and herself as she is swept headlong into the vortex of YouTube and Twitter.  Adeline's misadventures echo some of the bizarre relationship between the Twitterverse and novelist Joyce Carol Oates, including the author's perplexed dismay at the gorge of hostility into which she flings her gilded jewels of thought.

Kobek's joke is that Adeline has it very right before she's subsumed into this world gone wrong. The novel's animating incident is the upload of a talk that Adeline gives to a writing class taught by author Kevin Killian onto YouTube. (Like the long-vanished Beats of North Beach, Kobek is a relentless huckster for his pals' work as well as his own.) The video goes viral, as they do, but so much of what Adeline says in her last moments of relative anonymity and innocence – on Internet piracy, for instance, – possesses the unabashed clarity of someone not yet wholly swallowed in the belly of the fail whale:

I couldn't give two shakes of a hangman's holler, said Adeline, "about my comics being online and freely available. The Internet hasn't, as far as I can tell, affected our sales one metric inch. My collaborator feels otherwise. He feels that the Internet has impacted our ability to make good money off our old work. That's probably wrong, darlings, but what do I know? I barely use email. Have you seen my website? It's très pathétique. I don't use Twitter or Facebook. What does send yours truly into a tizzy is when people won't admit that they're just stealing other people's shit. The Internet is a weird place. Everyone makes everything a moral crusade. Why can't you just steal my books? Why must you be justified? Why must you bore me to death with a looooooooong speech about how copyright is actually copywrong?

An amusing coterie (artistic collaborators, tech capital creeps, science fiction authors who want to write literary fiction, outraged local activists) swirl around the two protagonists in a San Francisco that's inexorably losing its cool. (They spend a lot of time chiding Adeline about her post-YouTube conduct on the Internet.)

But characters and plot – though mined expertly for satiric value – aren't exactly the heart of Kobek's enterprise. The mood and method of the Central European philosophical novel permeates I Hate the Internet – winding back from Milan Kundera through Robert Musil to the Friedrich Nietzsche of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The gambit, of course, is a radical rearrangement of the audience's mental furniture, leaving pernicious but normalized ideas where the reader can trip up on them. Where they'll leave a goddamn mark.

Kobek's aims are closest to the guy who philosophized with a hammer, and the book is studded with aphorisms and epigrams that bruise and break: 

SCIENCE FICTION was a dying genre in which writers with no personal understanding of the human experience posited many theoretical futures of the species.

The merit of San Francisco of any moment in San Francisco could be measured by a simple question: was the beauty of the city outweighing its annoying citizens?

...[C]omic book conventions were an excuse for people to dress up like the intellectual properties of major corporations.

In its prankish determination to get its hands dirty with the things it's satirizing, I Hate the Internet hearkens back to Kobek's early work. But these staples of tech journalism – the Buzzfeed aggregation of celebrity tweets, the earnest faux-revelatory listicle, and the absurdities of trigger warnings – are presented with heightened sharpness and sophistication. Kobek hits a particularly rich vein in a quick sally on the so-called "Arab Spring," noting that the reporting on this complex and cataclysmic event was reduced to a tech media circle jerk of epic proportions ("Was What Happened in Tunisia a Twitter Revolution") and observing archly that:

Social protests staged in countries thousands of miles away, on a different continent, were covered as advertisements for multinational corporations headquartered around and near San Francisco.

Tech's propensity to strip landscape bare as easily as it reduces complexities of thought is another running theme of the novel. Kobek's San Francisco is as thoroughly hollowed out and vanquished as its literary and artistic class, haunted by the white Google buses ferrying Siliconites from the gentrifying city to their bubble world campuses in the Valley and back. (Kobek's alter ego even posits a theory that the buses are scheme out of J.G. Ballard's Super-Cannes, depositing tech industry workers at sites identified by Google Maps for street brawls.)

In a novel so relentless in its exploration of the chug and tug of right now, it's no surprise that Kobek is at his least convincing when he steps back and attempts to situate his book into historical categories he's busily demolishing. His argument in favor of labeling his novel as "bad," in opposition to the "good" suburban fictions of Updike, Cheever, and Franzen, is a distraction – as is a thinly stretched argument about the CIA's supposed involvement and reasoning in funding "good" literature.

I Hate the Internet is at its most powerful asserting that the literary class has been its own worst enemy in its collision with the tech revolution. Or as Kobek's stand-in shouts down into the city he loves/hates from Twin Peaks:

Down with your literary people, San Francisco! Down with all literary people! Book people are the only people who had the natural resources to resist the Internet's misery! Book people are the only people who have a half-way interesting argument to make against the Internet! Instead, book people rolled over like dogs at the kitchen table. The very first time they saw a website! Begging their master for a scratch of the stomach!

Smart, savage and unafraid to mix up slapstick and sublimity, I Hate the Internet gleefully bites every hand that feeds it. Its vitality and energy make it the kind of book that makes you think there might be some hope for literature after all.

Published March 19th, 2016

Richard Byrne is a playwright and journalist in Washington, DC. He has written about culture for the Washington Post, The Guardian, Time, The Nation, BookForum, New York Press and The Baffler.