by Travis Nichols (Coffee House Press)
Morrissey fans know the rest of that sentence.
“The more you ignore me,” goes the title and first line of one of his witty, haunting songs, “the closer I get.” It’s an ode to a certain kind of resentful loneliness, framed as devotion.
With his debut novel, Nichols gives us the perspective of another kind of unwanted devotee—an online troll. It’s a type of person most of us have at some point tried to imagine. Who are these people, insulting strangers on Youtube? How pitiful must a person be to get pleasure out of such pointless cruelty?
Nichols shows us how pitiful: very. Written in the form of one preposterously long blog comment, the novel is the story of what we soon realize is lifelong series of obsessions. Narrator lynksys181 has formed a fixation on a stranger who he first spied in the background of a politician’s press photo. She so resembled the woman he loved back in college that he believed she was his second chance at love. (He flubbed it badly, and weirdly, the first time.) So he tracks this stranger down—we’re given the image of a person with very little to do besides plumb the internet for the information and interactions he craves—and begins making contact as a commenter on her wedding blog.
Nichols has nailed the tone of the Internet troll—sniffy, a little too proper, fault-finding, superior. The occasional, unctuous smiley-face, emoticon as middle finger. But while some of the details of lynksys181’s life are nicely weird (he cooks all his food in a coffemaker), others beggar belief. It’s not uncommon to be treated brusquely by a doctor, but it’s pretty hard to imagine one showing disgust during a rectal exam by saying, “Putting a finger up there. Not cool.” [p 66] (Repeating this here makes it sound funnier than it is in the book, where it comes across as puzzling.)
Though lynksys181 is unbalanced, he’s not wrong about everything, which gives his narrative power. Take his withering description of the cool kids he observed at his nephew’s wedding: “Can no one under the age of thirty simply wear a suit or a dress, get a haircut, or sport a pair of shoes without screaming ‘Notice above all that I am special!’” [p 51]
He has a point.
But reading this brief story, one wishes Nichols’ writing had more of Morrissey’s wit and nuance, or that he’d taken a cue from the more subtle writers in his own genre. In Notes on a Scandal, another fictional treatment of an unstable individual playing havoc in other people’s lives, author Zoe Heller opened up the narrator’s psyche slowly, ever so slowly. She sounded so reasonable, so clear-eyed, that we trusted her until it was too late—just as her victim did. But poor lynksys181 is crazy right out of the gate, so there’s not enough suspense to carry us along. The book’s interesting premise and unusual execution, its deliciously promising title, and the sheer pleasure I took in seeing anyone lampoon the custom of keeping a wedding blog kept me reading, but I would have felt more committed to it if the queasy uncertainty that builds in the final 30 pages had been spread out a bit more.
Still, the novel is a success in many ways. Small publisher Coffee House consistently makes attractive books of high literary quality, and this one is no exception. Nichols’ language and humor are on-point; there are whiffs of the great satirist George Saunders throughout, as when our narrator tells us he once showed promise as a basketball player but he choked too often, leading him to “renounce” the game. “For years I refused to even acknowledge a pair of sneakers on television. They were dead to me.”
Most significantly, the novel pokes at some interesting ideas regarding social behavior and the ways it has changed (or stayed the same) in the digital era. The unspoken rules of Internet etiquette put forth that some online spaces are private, even though, actually, they are public. It would be weird to comment on a stranger’s wedding blog, in other words, so we don’t do it. But lynksys181 doesn’t understand the rules, and his social failures force us to look at them in a new light. He considers the blog an online community, even addressing the other visitors directly as “Community.” It feels sad, but sympathetic too, in a way: It’s not like it’s easy to keep up. Instagram, tumblr, Google+, Pinterest—there’s a lot of personal stuff being made public out there, and the terms are always shifting. What constitutes privacy, and community, in today’s world? Spend a little time with lynksys181, and what sounded way out-there at first begins to seem practically sane. After all, he was only joining in the conversation. As he says, almost without guile, “Without comments, a weblog is merely a monologue, correct?” [p 36]