- Start Reading
- Under the Influence
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I was first recommended Jennifer Egan’s A Vist from the Goon Squad by a student in my writing class. I began browsing the powerpoint chapter Great Rock and Roll Pauses while the class was on a timed workshop exercise, and it took some effort to drag my attention back after five minutes. I was awed by the perfection with which she’d combined form, theme, character and background. I was overawed when I re-read the chapter in its intended form as actual Powerpoint slides, with audio.
And I was blown away when I read it in the context of the whole novel, with full awareness of the characters and the past events this stand-alone chapter alludes to.
What awed me most was the way she’d taken a form designed as a medium for factual presentation, decided to use it to tell a story, and thought about every feature of that medium and every aspect of narrative in order to create a story that brings a new dimension to them both. A criticism frequently levelled at blogfic or other new media narrative forms is their gimmickiness, but Egan does so much more than just mashing a tale into a clever format for the sake of novelty. I finished Great Rock and Roll Pauses feeling like that particular story should not and probably could not be told any other way.
She pulls off a similar feat with her story Black Box, told on Twitter, though the individual missives aren’t Tweets, exactly – but to find out what they are, you’ll have to read it. Again the story was not chopped up into 140-character chapters to exploit Twitter as a gimmick, it was designed around the medium. Egan says in an interview for The New Yorker:
I love the thought of trying to use it [Twitter] as a delivery system for fiction, and I’m interested in the way that some nineteenth-century fiction was constructed around its serialization. So, the question was: what kind of story would need to be told in these very short bursts?
This is the connection with my research, and the reason I’m trying to base a story around the features of blogging rather than just using blogs to tell a story. Like Black Box and Great Rock and Roll Pauses, I wanted Bad Influences to not just be a story chopped up into blog entries, not even just a story told by bloggers, but a story that needed to be told through blogs, that dealt with the processes of blogging in its character development, its pacing, its viewpoint, its themes and structures. Admittedly my experiment hasn’t been as successful as Egan’s, but it’s gathering momentum and I’ve learnt a lot about its unique features.
I’ve already talked a lot about character development and pacing. Viewpoint is becoming more interesting for me now that the characters challenge each other more, and there’s interaction with participating readers’ comments. I’ve called the blogger’s voice the “self-conscious first person” before, but I’m starting to realise how many different viewpoints that entails. The characters are all now in the middle or advanced stages of a societal breakdown, and are aware that the stories they’re telling are beyond the ordinary, and they’ve altered their voices accordingly. Mei often takes on the detached eye of the correspondent, slipping into first person plural and speaking for the occupation rather than just herself. Elaine is a seasoned entertainer and deliberately (if flippantly) injects suspense into her story with direct questions to the reader and use of the second person. Jack remains entirely focussed on his own worldview, almost as if willing things to be as he sees them. This desperation, and his still quite recent loss, make him a more tragic and sympathetic figure than he was at the beginning, but also an unreliable narrator – accentuated by Elaine and Ash’s dialogue over the plausibility of his viewpoint. Ash has changed nothing – his viewpoint is still a straightforward, calm, measured, personal perspective on the wider social issues, as befits heroes of the British disaster tradition – though interrupted by the realities of his family and friends. The point about all of these perspectives is that they’re not just about the characters’ internal voices or how they see the world, they’re about the characters’ awareness of how they present themselves to the world, how they are being seen.
The idea is that the form is not just a gimmicky medium to draw attention to the content, it shapes and influences content, and the content in turns comments on and expands the use and possibilities of the medium.