Sunday, March 9, 2014

Delusion ("Notes from the Internet Apocalypse" by Wayne Gladstone)

Within the first forty pages of Notes from the Internet Apocalypse, Wayne Gladstone offers a comprehensive inventory of all things modern and online: Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, Reddit,  Chatroulette, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Excel, Chrome, Netflix, Google, IMDb, YouTube, IMs, poking, Daily Kos, SOPA, pop-up ads, apps, Rickrolls, LOLcats, 4Chan, chat rooms, and webcams. He also enlists elements of our culture that go beyond the Internet--DVDs, Hot Topic stores, Starbucks, IMAX movies, Jack Kerouac, novelty t-shirts, Jason Bateman, McSweeney's, and Michelob Ultra--to establish the world in which his novel takes place...a tactic that is often frustrating and transforms every paragraph into a challenge:  to continue on or abandon. The temptation to do the latter is not just understandable but seemingly encouraged, as these incessant allusions seem like the tools of an author both  inexperienced in the ability to edit himself and desperate to make his satire all the more painfully obvious. However, these allusions are not Gladstone's  unstoppable  need to date his prose. In truth, they are a palace.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Fyodor Dostoyevsky published Notes from the Underground, the short but powerful story of a nameless bureaucrat--retired, it seems--whose ramblings about the people around him are nothing short of delusional. He is narcissistic, jealous, angry, and spiteful--a living concoction that perfectly describes Internet "trolls," a moniker bestowed on Internet users in recognition of their unyielding hunger for attention through pure, unabashed vitriol. Much like Dostoyevsky's nameless man--the prototypical unreliable narrator--trolls work anonymously, their identities hidden behind screen names and farcical profiles, and the only logical way to engage them is to not engage them at all. Which is, in its own way, ironic when we talk about Dostoyevsky's 19th-century antagonist:  by reading his words and using our minds to understand his, we are in essence acknowledging his delusions as legitimate, even as we dismiss them as worthless. We are feeding the troll. It is one of the central paradoxes of the so-called Underground Man, one that modern-day incarnations are unable to duplicate.

Regardless of paradoxes, Dostoyevsky wrote his novella in an age before the Internet and its multitude of possible allusions. Instead, he had the Crystal Palace--a beautiful work of both art and architecture, now long gone, and the only item that dates Dostoyevsky's work in any way. A masterpiece in its day, the Palace was a building expensive in appearance but inexpensive in details--a contrast typified by the mixture of glass and cast iron that constituted much of its make-up. It spoke of wealth and exclusivity while being open to all and featuring exhibitions from around the world. Even after it had exhausted its presence in Hyde Park, the Palace was reassembled elsewhere with ease. To the Underground Man, however, this massive structure--both beautiful and practical, one large juxtaposition unto itself--was nothing short of vile, a symbol of conformity and thoughtlessness by those blinded by idealism; in one instance, he even refers to it as worthy of only chickens and wishes he could be in its presence so he could stick out his tongue at it, defiant.

It's this same attitude that Gladstone's narrator--as it happens, also named Gladstone--seems to take to the world around him. He is connected online in every way imaginable, and yet he is both physically and mentally alone. His wife has left him, and the child they conceived together miscarried. The relationships he has are weak and inconsequential:  his co-workers snicker at him, his boss ignores him, and his online acquaintances are just that and little more. That is, until one of these  friends, Tobey, shows up unannounced at his door proclaiming the Internet Apocalypse--a scene reminiscent of Ford Perfect's hurried arrival in A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. As we soon discover, this vague similarity to Douglas Adams is more than just coincidental.

As it turns out, Tobey's diagnosis isn't far off:  the Internet has stopped working. And while every other aspect of modern life continues uninterrupted--phones still take pictures, baristas still serve coffee, libraries remain open--the loss of "the Net" sends much of the world into a tailspin. Makeshift porn theatres are set up where, for a fee, any fantasy or fetish can be realized on stage as though it were a real-time, in-person computer screen. A man calling himself Jeeves sets up shop in Central Park and, using his encyclopedic knowledge, answers any question for five dollars, returning two if he is unsure--a fleshen Wikipedia, only more reliable. And roving gangs of Internet addicts, referred to as zombies because of their mindless actions and appearance, satisfy their need for bizarre visual experiences by torturing small animals and beating one another for no reason. Most of society cannot cope with a life beyond the Internet, as it's the only reality they've known, and anything other than their online selves is foreign to them. They are, in essence, strangers to themselves.

As it happens, Tobey is himself a stranger to Gladstone, though until now he was the closest our narrator had to an actual friend. (Much like Ford Perfect in Adams' novel, Tobey is an alien, only less literally.) Joined by Oz, a punk-goth Aussie and former web-cam girl, the three engage in an Everyman's journey across Brooklyn--a search for answers and the Internet, they say, though their search is also for a purpose in an age where, suddenly, a person must live beyond their digital self. A sarcastic pot-smoking blogger before the apocalypse, Tobey must sober up and find an actual job, if for no other reason than to gain information. Oz, now without a paying Internet presence, must find an audience among the living--in this case, paying customers who, one by one, employ her services, only now without physical and metaphorical oceans between them.

And Gladstone--our Everyman, our clueless Arthur Dent, our delusional Underground Man--must wake up to who he really is sans the Internet. He is a former bureaucrat on disability with no wife and no children, and his search for wireless connections is in fact a search of any connections at all. His friendships with Tobey and Oz seem like the relationships he was missing while he and the world were collectively isolated. (As he later says, the Internet "is just a way for millions of sad people to be alone together.") For much of their journey, the allusions that saturate the opening chapters all but disappear like toxins from the body of a recovering  addict,  and for the first time Gladstone seems to be alive, even as he struggles with memories of the life he once lived but nonetheless lost. In the novel's climax, when he faces down his actual online self--a doppelganger professing to be the Internet personified, and living in the crown of the Statue of Liberty--he does so unaware that even this journey has been little more than a manifestation of his mind, as though he had been using his imagination to create a reality where he was important, clear-eyed, and loved.

It cannot be so, unfortunately. Gladstone is delusional, and every single one of the 200 pages preceeding this confrontation--his allusion-laden beginnings, his role as amateur detective, his sudden status as the Messiah--is little more than the real world twisted to fit a fantasy that itself fits the world in which he wants to live. There is a fundamentalist politician who sees the Internet as inherently evil--a parody of Michelle Bachmann, flamboyant husband in tow--who leads a crowd of thoughtless conservatives on a city-wide crusade against the Messiah. There is the Occupy Wall Street protester who cannot identify the target of her anger, cannot express her own opinions, and is terrified of the very power structure she claims to be fighting against. Even the various strangers Gladstone encounters on his journey and engages in thoughtful conversation--the best aspects of the novel, by far--are so deeply, incongruously well-spoken and perfect that they become little more than obvious stand-ins for Gladstone's own subconscious, rendered as cliched wise men in order for the narrator to negotiate with his own ideas.

Perhaps the best example of this--and the most well-written section of the book--is Gladstone's encounter with a businessman named Hamilton Burke. Standing outside the grave of his namesake, Alexander Hamilton, the cigar-chomping Burke exudes the maturity and self-assuredness Gladstone lacks:  "I could tell I was dealing with another adult who had a job I didn't understand, and if I didn't get it I knew I never would. When I was a little kid, I pretty much thought there were only six jobs in the world:  doctor, lawyer, teacher, fireman, policeman, and astronaut. The rest were a blur of things I never took the time to know." Gladstone's acknowledgement that this man is yet another adult whose life is unlike his own, followed by a list of professions so limited in their scope and definitions that they speak to the world as understood by a child, reveals that Gladstone's delusional mindset is not the result of narcissism or anger or jealousy, as they were 150 years ago, but of detachment. Gladstone is a man who does not understand how to function in a world that requires him to be more than just a public profile, a Twitter handle, a Netflix subscriber.

Which is the point of Gladstone's story. If Dostoyevsky spoke of minds poisoned by ideology and narcissism, Gladstone speaks to the mind hollowed out by modern technology. As Burke himself notes, the progress that we believe has made our lives easier has actually trapped us into routines where we work harder for the same, or even less--our own communal delusion, fueled by technological drugs around which our every decision pivots.* When Gladstone reveals himself to be a child at heart--unaware, simple-minded, driven by fantasy and excuse--he stands in for a tech-addled population in need of an intervention. Our minds are rich, Gladstone shows us, but they are trapped by the wires and boxes which keep us bound and asleep, dreaming dreams of everything and nothing.

*"There has not been a piece of technology designed to save labor that has not increased labor. Word processors allow you to do what your secretary used to do for you. The Internet, BlackBerries, iPhones, yes they keep you tethered, but that's not the main problem. It's that along with increasing personal productivity, they increase the expectation of productivity. It no longer becomes a bonus to do the work of one and a half men, but the norm. And then when everyone's working at one hundred and fifty percent capacity, they can fire a third of the workforce and still maintain output."