( Soft Skull , 2022)
For any computer user the opening sentence in Jordan Castro’s compact, brilliant, and very funny debut novel The Novelist is determinedly accurate and not a little uncanny: “I opened my laptop, still waiting for my morning tea to steep, and tried to type my password three times rapidly before getting it right, my waking fingers clicking with the determination of a machine.“ It is those “clicking” fingers and that particular “machine” I find slightly unsettling, a quiet but bracing nudge that a user might be as “machine” as its computer. A new notion? Maybe not. But what rich comedy Castro wrenches from the idea. And, of course, what Castro’s writer should be doing next is working on his novel, but where instead do his “clicking” fingers take him? One guess: “I immediately clicked the Gmail icon… I hated checking email first thing in the morning. It set a bad tone for the rest of the day.” (I feel his pain.) And where do things go from there? Let’s just say the “tone” does not go up. Rather, he doom-scrolls on Twitter, a site he “hates,” the very same stuff he knows will keep him from writing.
Nevertheless, he clicks.
Castro’s writer—who remains unnamed—feels a mixed contempt for Twitter, even for his followers. But like a junkie he needs his morning fix. And his contempt does not stop there. He vacillates back and forth between disdain and approval for his friends Li and Eric, and for a problematic writer named “Jordan Castro” (a minor meta-subplot that deftly avoids distraction), all of whom our narrator engages with, “multitasking” throughout, via email, text, Twitter, and of course eventually Facebook and YouTube—seemingly any site, really, that will steal his attention and stop him from working on his book (which is the very plot of this novel). Not to mention the contempt our narrator feels for himself, practically entrapped by social media, activating his “brain like a slot machine”:
I had been fragmenting in this manner for years. The cumulative amount of time I spent unintentionally scrolling through feeds, looking at things I was more thrust into than chose, was unfathomable … It felt as if Twitter was taking part of my consciousness from me, sucking it out of wherever it was, and fuzzily disrupting it, like an energy field, not a website, moving through the air toward me, while simultaneously pulling me outside of myself and ‘into’ Twitter, fusing the two in midair.
And here we find ourselves back at Castro’s opening metaphor, the “machine”: “’I’ was somewhere inside myself, behind my outer face, my skin face.”; “I shrunk into my second face, vision blurred, until my skin face felt like it was shivering; my lips hung parted as I imagined my skin face melting….”
If all of this sounds a little grim, it is. Kind of.
But also it’s exuberant, light at all the right times, and very, very funny. Castro closely catalogs nearly every step of his narrator’s writing process: from carefully preparing hot tea, to pondering the composite possibilities of his probably marble kitchen counter, to thinking about narrative theory, and identity politics. All of this before finally: “navigating on the screen to Google Docs, where I then opened my novel” (on page forty-three!). Which is not to suggest the narrator finally starts writing proper. Even his toilet time is up for deconstruction, culminating in a disarming and hilariously frank twenty-two-page tour de force of our narrator’s morning shit.
The Novelist pays explicit homage to its major influences, Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine and Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters (both are named within its pages). And yet while The Mezzanine and Woodcutters find comedy in manic nostalgia and spleen, The Novelist finds its comedy in the new self-hobbling patterns spawned by social media. Which are not exceptional for Castro, or for his novelist. Perhaps this is why the novel is so affecting. We know its sting. We are complicit. Technology is taking our attention, too. We are all “multitaskers,” now.
Or are we?
In journalist Johann Hari’s recent study, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again, he completely dismisses the romantic conception of “multitasking” in a world of smartphones and social media. Hari argues we are spending our attention on too many simultaneous gadgets and applications, and, in turn, we are missing out on real focused meaning. At what cost? Hari muses sadly: “Narcissism, it occurs to me, is a corruption of attention.” One might call this yet one more death knell for the arts, and in a post-Kardashian world we probably have all seen its players. And yet Castro has committed the unlikely act of attending to his art while including its corruption, a tradition all its own, thus making it all the more contemporary and comedic. There is hope. Even as I type this—my Gmail widow is open, as is my Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, and the draft of a new novel manuscript.