Virtual Intimacy and the New Literature

I think there are two types of people: those whose central narratives are interior, and those whose are exterior; those whose daily triumphs and despairs stem from thought or emotion, and those who glean meaning from work, friends, reality. My narrative is deeply, deeply interior—somewhere in my gut, or butt—and, like others whose chaos goes unseen, I have a tremendously difficult time knowing what to do with the large amount of freedom allotted to me as an MFA candidate. My poems emerge in manic fits on the page—a fifteen-minute endeavor—then get locked away in some forgettable computer folder, safer and lovelier in mind’s eye. My daily inner monologues are rambling, stampeding, but I am—as a human existing among other humans and in a very palpable, complex physical world—essentially useless. It’s embarrassing how many TV stations’ daytime programming I’ve committed to memory, how many anonymous blogs I’ve scoured for those who seem equally frightened, and like me, unable to make sense of their bodies or how to navigate them through time and space. The characters in Guillaume Morissette’s new book of short stories and poems, I am my own betrayal, are also narratively driven by their butts, plopped down before a computer screen or else too drunk to have any awareness of their own bodies. They’re headed nowhere significant, show mild concern about the disarray of their existence, but are slaves to the greater human need of comfort, intimacy.

My own paralysis and that of Morissette’s characters is deeply private, not something I really admit to others and often myself. My supposition is that this brand of boredom and angst is typical to my generation of twenty-somethings that are out of work, back in school to bide time, and profoundly confused about their own potential—whether or not it’s even worth trying to live up to. We are drunk and drugged, plugged in and screened out, more aware of our own timid selves than of anyone or anything else.

This is doom and gloom, yes. But in I am my own betrayal, Morissette makes this doom and gloom funny, sweet in a way that’s also sad. A hip, twenty-something (given what he looks like in Facebook photos) himself, living in the uber-hip, youth-trodden Montreal, Quebec, I got the feeling that Morissette gets me. Gets us. The stories are Seinfeld-esque: thin plot—nearly transparent—the brunt of it populated by strange/funny/absurdist communique amongst the lost. Our protagonists—perhaps better defined as anti-heroes—spend most of their time on the internet or in interactive video games; the few moments spotlighted in the real world seem somehow more superficial or dishonest than the worlds of Gmail, Facebook, Fighter Games. It is in these virtual realms the characters seem most alive, willing to be themselves. Interesting questions arise: Is it possible that the internet is changing the way we think about intimacy? Does identity become more complex, multi-faceted? Is there perhaps a very novel value to having one’s head in the cloud?

Ezra Pound famously claimed that we’ve already said everything pertinent and interesting; our mission as writers is not to invent, but to, according to Pound, “make it new.” “The ‘It’ in ‘Make It New,'” explains Louis Menand of the New Yorker, “is the Old—what is valuable in the culture of the past.” True, we’ve mulled over those big, ugly human truths pretty thoroughly, but what Pound didn’t know was that we’d create an entirely new, inhabitable world for these big, ugly human truths to pollute: the internet. In my writerly circles, I hear mostly damning things about the WWW, lines like: “It’s destroying communication, destroying literature, destroying our connection to the natural world.” But what I suspect most writers know and are unwilling to admit is the very eerie similarity between webbing and writing: we want to recreate ourselves, our world, our friends—we write. Or Facebook, tweet, Tumble. We want to express the very personal and humiliating pains of love and fear and loss that do not find place over cocktails, we write. Or chat, e-mail, blog. We are awkward and anxious in person, but wooing poets on paper. Or via Gchat.

The defining emotion to these characters is loneliness, but not in the sense that their worlds are unpeopled; it’s more that their relationships and interactions, when physical, seem always amiss—always a disappointment. The first story, “Vaster Emptiness Achieved,” is told mostly through an email relay between two writers who forge long, confessional, poetic letters about sex, awkwardness, depression:

I was sitting there and it was like being in a duel against the pint of beer in my hand. I said generic stuff like ‘what are you drinking?’ and ‘the music is very loud’ and sat in the dark and felt bored then laughed at myself and felt bored again. I got not that much sleep and in the morning it felt like my skull was cracked and that a flower was maybe growing through the crack. I ran to catch the metro and heard air whistling through the crack.

When finally they meet up, drinking beers becomes priority; without the buffer of time and space afforded online, the two must grapple with their awkward bodies and voices and stilted attraction, even though they’ve seemingly confessed every cranny of their consciousness already: “I was trying to impress her and felt stupid, like a toy poodle jumping through a very large hoop.” Online, we can manage and edit ourselves. We’re also, of course, blind to whatever nonverbal communication might persuade us not to say what’s really on our mind, or adjust our words and actions to fit others’ needs. There’s no bane of silence or need to fill it; time itself is yours and you flick it on and off like a light switch. The truth, via our unnamed protagonist, comes out: “I like the internet because I envy the internet. It lives without the hindrance and limitations of a body and I don’t.”

What I find daunting and downright exhausting about face-to-face communique is that social mores still, for the most part, do not allot space for sadness and anxiety; feelings—unless elevated—are relegated to bedrooms and bathrooms and basements, as if negative emotion is some sort of carcinogen that’ll fuck everyone else up if emitted. In my favorite story in I am my own betrayal, “And How They All Fell To and Speedily Devoured the Muskallonge that Had Eaten the Carp,” Leigh is a young artist working as an animator for a toy company creating a video game featuring, like, MDMA-level-happy giraffes frolicking, dancing, collecting happy coins. Faced with the bright colors and senseless glee on her screen day after day, Leigh’s despair mounts, as she realizes via contrast how deeply sad she actually is. After weeks of self-pitying and complaining to a hard-headed co-worker, she makes an important discovery: “was happiness nothing but a small, cartoon emotion? Happiness could not survive in a universe that made no sense, was itself and the opposite of itself, baby kittens and cancer, battle axes and a precious vase, monotony and rollercoasters, intimacy and affection and then all of a sudden no more intimacy and affection.” Uninspired by her “happy or numb” co-workers, she longs to express some semblance of humanity: “this morning I thought about weeping… openly, at my desk, in front of everyone.” “And How They All Fell…” makes the conceit that happiness isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be; it’s unsustainable, uninteresting, and often a feeble emotion, considering what tends to move us and connect us to others is not rabid glee but loss, boredom, loneliness.

Morissette’s poetry is equally strange, comical, sad. His speakers embody that crippling self-awareness that marks much of postmodern literature; some poems are so unsure of themselves I wonder if Morissette is making fun of poetry—the shameless elevation of one’s petty emotions (a few titles as examples: “I hate Myself,” and “Poems Are For No One, Very Long Poems Are For Themselves”). As hard as he seems to be trying to fend off any accusation of being a poet (read: yet another arrogant youth who’s afforded the time and money to sit around thinking about his feelings, shape them into song) the meat of his lyric is not a joke, is as sincerely sad and confused and self-hating as too much of my generation is and is unwilling to admit, staving it all off with alcohol and irony. Again, Morissette holds his emotional scape against the virtual one:

I have been more of a facebook profile than 
a person lately. yesterday the status updates
were cascading down the page like a zen waterfall
so I sat still and listened. what does the waterfall
say. the subtext is unknown and possibly nothing.

This collection reminds us how insanely difficult it can be to feel understood, and that going about achieving said understanding is really fucking hard. But this is The Great Effort for the characters in I am my own betrayal and everyone else who’s not a sociopath. We’re all total dummies and assholes when it comes to forging connection—this book makes this hilariously and painfully clear. Morissette’s characters are weird, unsexy, and desperate to both hide themselves and be seen, making them pretty accurate portrayals of our techno-high youth. I love the ending of the poem “I am on MDMA Let Me Give You Life Advice,” which sums up this point well: “I will address all my issues / in my head, which is invisible, then do mdma / and read the most emotional emails in my email inbox.”

Let’s face it, unhappiness, for most, is a likelier fate than happiness. But so what? I am my own betrayal—a funny, sad, and quietly profound little stitch of literature—reminds us that the more pressing and redemptive feeling is connection, and that the awkward and strenuous journey to get that—to feel just a little less alone—is worth every sacrifice. I agree with my writerly colleagues that the internet is alienating and dumbing and without morality, but it is also what enables the masses to be novelists and poets and playwrights; on the WWW we can be whomever we want—our identity is our design. If literature can be defined as a means of connection, a way for someone to, as David Foster Wallace once said, “alleviate loneliness,” then aren’t all those communiques tangled up in the cloud achieving literature’s goal? Perhaps it is not necessary, as Pound said, to remake what’s already been done; our generation has manufactured a gnarly, invisible wonderland where true literary democracy is beginning. The really big and difficult question that I am left with, and that Morissette is prodding in I am my own betrayal, is which brand of connection will better feed the lonely heart: physical, or virtual?

Elizabeth Bohnhorst's poetry has appeared in The Pinch, Camroc Press Review, Word Riot, The Austin Poetry Anthology, The Dunes Review, and elsewhere. She has a terrible short-term memory and would love advice on how to remedy this.