Sometimes you just want to read a book with a plot. You know, the kind where people meet each other, go places, fall in love, fight, fall out of love, even die—A good, old-fashioned story. Jordan Castro’s new novel, cheekily titled The Novelist, is emphatically not a good, old-fashioned story. Even calling The Novelist a novel at all is a gag. “I opened my laptop,” the narrator says in the opening lines, and those first four words are the beginning, middle, and end of its narrative. The winking title was the right choice: The Guy Who Opened His Laptop doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
The Novelist takes place over a single morning, following an unnamed writer as he faffs around on social media while his girlfriend sleeps in their apartment; he occasionally fiddles with novels in progress in Google Docs. That’s it. The first 16 pages describe the protagonist looking at Twitter in minute-by-minute detail, thinking inane thoughts like “my Twitter was horrible — Twitter in general was horrible.” A more annoying premise for a book is, frankly, hard to imagine. And yet, here I am, recommending it. What’s good about a novel with a plotline so insipid it borders on openly hostile? Well, for starters, it’s funny — a rare and cherishable quality in contemporary literature.
It also contains some of the most accurate — and accurately abject — depictions of the experience of using the internet ever captured in fiction. There’s a tangent in The Novelist where the narrator remembers a popular girl from his high school named Ashley. He looks her up on Facebook, clicking through her digital photographs. “Moving quickly, almost frantically, as though trying to complete an urgent task, I navigated back to Ashley’s profile and clicked her header photo: a group of wealthy-looking small women and thick men, all white, wearing dresses and high heels or blazers and partially unbuttoned button-ups, standing crammed together on a roof, a skyline I didn’t recognize behind them. I did, however, recognize some of the people in the picture. At least I thought I did — when I moved the cursor over their faces and bodies, the names that appeared were unrecognizable to me, ”the narrator thinks, before daydreaming about what these people he may or may not know may or may not be like . “I imagined arguing about racism with one of the thick men in the picture,” he continues, poring over Ashley’s social milieu like an amateur sleuth. This passage will, I suspect, resonate with anyone who has ever let an hour or two drift by playing detective over corny acquaintances on Facebook, and it establishes Castro as a psychologically precise chronicler of life online.
In a wiggly middle finger to anyone who might mistake The Novelist for autofiction, Castro invents a bizarre version of himself for the narrator to obsess over, a literary semi-celebrity who has become a bogeyman to the lefty internet despite not actually saying anything morally objectionable. This fictional Jordan Castro writes a novel, which then gets sucked into the gears of an online outrage cycle, giving the author an opportunity to riff on how fatuous so-called progressive media can be: “The narrator of one of Jordan Castro’s novels was an amateur bodybuilder, and the novel, due to its being released when the culture was having a ‘reckoning with toxic masculinity,’ was received harshly by many, who described it variously as ‘fascist,’ ‘protofascist,’ ‘fatphobic,’ or, curiously, ‘not what we need right now.’ In a matter of weeks, reviews had been written with titles such as ‘We Read Jordan Castro’s Body Novel, So You Don’t Have To,’ and ‘Jordan Castro’s Fitness Privilege,’ which dealt not so much with the book’s literary qualities as with the effect it might have in reality, due to the supposed hidden meaning in some of the sentences. ” As with the description of social media wormholes, these acidic tangents about the state of online discourse are stingingly exact.
While the “internet novel ”is now its own subgenre, it’s still rare to see these commonplace experiences of being online rendered quite so realistically, with an eye toward the unflattering, humiliating, and true. The finest of the recent “internet novels,” Patricia’s Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About Thiscaptures the sensibility of an extremely online mind, but its fragmented style and playful, absurdist language create an impressionistic portrait — there’s no discussion of, say, typing in a password incorrectly or the impulse to delete Facebook after losing an afternoon to it. The Novelist, in contrast, has a quotidian, bloggy quality. Castro, a poet and the former editor of New York Tyrant Magazinehas alt-lit allegiances (he thanks Tao Lin in the acknowledgments), and excerpts from his protagonist’s matter-of-fact recounting of a morning frittered away on social media wouldn’t have been out of place on Thought Catalog in, say, 2011. (Although it is now often associated with tossed-off personal essays, Thought Catalog was in its early years a frequent publisher of alt-lit voices like Tao Lin, Megan Boyle, and Castro himself.)
People often dismiss writing tightly focused on the self as “navel-gazing,” but the flamboyant, defiant solipsism of Castro’s protagonist isn’t quite that. If anything, “anus-gazing” would be a more appropriate descriptor, considering the narrator is pooping, thinking about poop, or emailing his friend about poop for a remarkably large portion of the novel. (The Novelist must hold some sort of record for longest description of toilet paper wiping techniques in fiction.) All the scatalogical talk blends together with all the screen-time descriptions — sometimes the protagonist is both pooping and browsing Instagram — suggesting a connection: In the end, it’s all the same shit.