Social Networking ‘Chat’ in Fiction – some thoughts about what it does

Ben Lerner’s Leaving The Atocha Station makes me think that chat logs/IMs are uniquely powerful narrative modes. There’s a big chunk of this kind of communication between the narrator and a distant friend in the middle of the novel. It’s almost like we run along the keystrokes as we read this sort of conversation/interaction (computer-mediated-communication is too technical a term for this stuff I feel). The clunkiness of a keyboard input is transformed into a kind of hyper-dialogue – with one of the magic tricks being that we’re made to think of the character *thinking* of how to articulate themselves. Keener empathetic link, perhaps. Perhaps this is just more post-modernism? Or perhaps when we read chat logs in novels they become defamiliarised and we view them as something that isn’t just a conversation or dialogue. We might say they are concentrated narratives, because they are a character’s constant retelling of themselves within the retelling of another story*. (*I hope you feel good about the Inception pun you just made.) Obviously we have to be careful about what assumptions we make about characters (i.e. constructs, representations, not human beings) but let’s go with this way of thinking for now.

A quick distinction that I’m playing with at the moment. Dialogue is immediate, spoken with full awareness of the other (i.e. the person that isn’t you). Interaction via chat is made differently because it is mediated by a computer. It’s inputted/created with a conspicuous awareness of the self-as-other (i.e. you understand there’s a version of you which isn’t really you ).

The most striking moment of this novel was not ‘told’ by the narrator but presented on the page through said chat dialogue. (Are some of the most moving parts of our lives actually these moments now? I say this entirely seriously. No vague arguments about ‘real human connection’ or ‘wasn’t it better when’. We connect now in this way, quite a bit. Let’s think about that critically.) The things that happen, it seems – the important things – have always happened to a version of ourselves i.e. a remembered self, or a slightly altered version of the self that actually did those things. Now, instead of memory/tangible objects being a representation of those different versions, we have a constant digital record. The important event – a traumatic death, in Lerner’s novel – is rendered significant for being removed from the general voice of the narrative and turned into one of these records. Two typed voices comprise the retelling of (or the creating of) the story of a tragic death, as witnessed by the narrator’s friend. At the end of the story, the friend moves on prosaically  – “How is Spain?” – in a way which is absurd, maybe horrible, but entirely recognisable. At that moment we understand that this kind of controlled, highly artificial-yet-sincere interaction was the only way to effectively articulate the traumatic experience the friend had gone through. It was retold to themselves as much as ‘told’ to our narrator. So the chat log can go beyond the confines of other epistolary devices – letters, telegrams – because it is immediately and consciously not one-voice-writing-to-another but two voices writing at themselves and each other simultaneously.

The automatic concern about computer-mediated-communication and online interactions is that we’re distancing other human beings. Simultaneously, though, we’re uncovering an understanding of how we construct ourselves – an understanding not asked for, or fully comprehended each time we glimpse it, and this is therefore disconcerting. Maybe that’s the real fear… the important thing, we learn about the stuff that we normally don’t have reflected at us by face-to-face communication. For Lerner, in Leaving The Atocha Station, the chat log is a site of self-understanding rather than just a handy long-distance connecting device for the story. In a similar way to how Lerner’s narrator reflects throughout the novel, it forces the reader to consider how they make-themselves-up.