(Note: The following is adapted from a talk given at the University of Minnesota)
Here’s a fun trick, if you happen to be teaching a college level class: Squint out from behind that big desk or lectern or black treated-rubber-covered laboratory table on which you are banging your fists in a desperate attempt to keep your students paying attention to you instead of to Facebook and say unto them, Alright, raise your hands if you can remember the first time you ever used the internet.
Try it. Not right now, obviously, as I’d prefer you read this, and if it happens to be in the twilight hours going and getting a bunch of kids together might get you in trouble. Should you ever be amongst a large quantity of the yoots of America, try it. It’s an edifying experience.
And then, if you want to blow their minds, tell them that in ten years, none of the eighteen-to-twenty-year-olds you ask this question of will raise their hands. You’ll get lots of those mmms you hear from the audience during TED talks when someone has said something that feels profoundish.
I remember the first time I used the internet, of course. I had been logging onto BBSes—and even running one—for years. In fact, I considered myself (mistakenly) a fairly techno-savvy person. But I had never used the internet before the last week of August, 1997, when Joe Dickson showed me how to plug my computer in to Vassar’s Ethernet system, load up Netscape Navigator and go to visit a then obscure online bookseller called Amazon dot com.
Don’t worry. This isn’t going to be about nostalgia, even if nostalgia is one of the dominant modes of the internet. No. I’m far more interested in the ubiquity of the web and in the ways webbiness has begun to infect and affect the narratives we consume and create.
Twenty two years ago, David Foster Wallace was thinking about similar questions with his essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction. Noting that people spend more time consuming television than doing almost anything else, Wallace inquired into what happens to us when we spend the plurality of our hours as spectators as an audience staring, as he points out, at our furniture. What, he wonders, does it do to us when we stop interacting with the real world and spend most of our time not interacting with but rather absorbing fictionalized narratives about the world?
My guess is that a lot of HU readers have read the essay, and it’s way too long and complicated to summarize here. But to broad-stroke it for you, what Wallace ends up at is looking at the ways that “irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture… that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat.” Along the way he notes that “irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture,” while calling TV a “malevolent addiction,” because it holds itself out as the solution to a problem (loneliness) that it is abetting.
What Wallace is really after is the ways fiction could (and does) respond to all of this. To do this, he describes what he calls “Image-Fiction.” This term is a bit slippery. Wallace seeks to unite many aesthetically divergent writers (such as Don DeLillo, AM Homes, Mark Leyner and himself) under a banner that’s more defined by core values than actual noticeable artistic commonalities:
If the postmodern church fathers found pop images valid referents and symbols in fiction….the new Fiction of Images uses the transient received myths of popular culture as a world in which to imagine fictions about “real,” albeit pop-mediated, characters….The Fiction of Image is not just a use or mention of televisual culture but an actual response to it, an effort to impose some sort of accountability … It is a natural adaptation of the hoary techniques of literary Realism to a ‘90s world whose defining boundaries have been deformed by electric signal. For one of realistic fiction’s big jobs used to be… to help readers leap over the walls of self and locale and show us unseen or –dreamed-of people and cultures and ways to be. Realism made the strange familiar. Today, when we can eat Tex-Mex with chopsticks while listening to reggae and watching a Soviet-satellite newscast of the Berlin Wall’s fall… it’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious Realist fiction is going about trying to make the familiar strange. (all italics in the original)
One of the problems with reading E Unibus Pluram today is that it’s a bit dated. This essay was written prior to both The Sopranos and widespread internet use, and so it’s tempting to say that everything has changed. Which, to some extent it has; the problems he’s discussing are true, but they’ve also radically shifted. Nevertheless, it provides a rather nice lens through which we can look at Jonathan Lethem—one of Wallace’s near-contemporaries—and how his latest novel Chronic City assays American humanity in the age of the internet.
Wallace is worried about what happens to a culture when it moves from being A Nation of “Do-ers and Be-ers” (his words) to a nation of spectators and consumers. We watch television, we buy things on QVC. Wash, rinse, repeat. This is not exactly true anymore.
Many readers of this post have likely heard someone on the radio or the teevee say something akin to “We used to make things. America doesn’t make anything anymore!” as a way of tracing our decline as a nation. Pretty much everyone who comments on the economy or politics, regardless of political ideology, ends up saying this at some point.
That statement—America Is Broken, We Don’t Make Things Anymore—is sort of true and sort of misleading. It’s not true in the sense that it’s actually meant. It turns out many many things are still manufactured in America. But—and this is an important but—not that many Americans are employed making them. Many of them are made, instead, by robots. So the statement “we used to make things” becomes true, even if the statement “we used to make things” is false.
It’s also worth thinking about the other word in that sentence: Things. We. Used. To. Make. Things. We don’t make things anymore. We have robots for that. So what do we make? We make cultural output and in particular, we make images. And many of us are doing this all the time. For free. On the internet. We are making animated .gifs and publishing them on tumblr. We are making memes of Ryan Gosling going “Hey Girl.” We’re writing long blog posts doing close readings of novels. We’re making short films and posting them to YouTube. And we love these images we create so much that we will go to a festival to see a hologram of a dead rapper perform.
This is having a profound effect on who we are, what the world is and how we perceive and navigate it. This is what, to me, Chronic City is about. As we’ll discuss in part two (now up!), It’s about these forces, ones that affect all of us, ones we don’t think about anymore because they’re the New Normal.
 NB: Chronic City is a large, long, thematically dense and at times deliciously contradictory and ambiguous novel. It’s also clearly meant to be read more than once. So please take this as A reading of the book rather than The One True reading of the book. If you haven’t read it before, I hope this provides you some sign posts for your own explorations within its streets and boulevards.