Musician and writer Alina Simone’s debut novel Note to Self is many things: a comedy, a tragedy, a coming of age story; but perhaps more than anything, it's an exploration of The Internet (serious business) and how it has “draped itself, kudzu-like,” over our minds. The protagonist, Anna, is a thirty-seven-year-old New Yorker who finds herself fired from her dull office job and left with nothing but a dwindling savings account and an expanding spam collection. Despite the efforts of her friend and self-appointed life coach, Anna can’t quite summon the will to put her life back together and instead gets pulled down the rabbit hole of Craigslist into the strange world of fringe art in the digital age.
Though the novel’s well-rendered portrait of a pretentious, hyper-aware, and deliberately affected film-making scene may not be familiar to most readers (it wasn’t for me), the feeling that this strange and ubiquitous thing called the Internet has somehow taken over our lives is much easier to relate to. Simone’s kudzu analogy is an apt one. Her darkly humorous observations about the true scope of the Internet might be best summed up in one particular exchange between Anna and her twenty-something roommate, the professional unpaid intern Brie: “'You do realize that no one cares about this shit except online?’ [Brie asked]. Anna stared at her. What did that even mean?”
For better or worse–and plenty of people argue worse–the Internet has become an unavoidable force in our lives. What makes Simone’s novel so exciting, however, is the nuanced view she takes towards the whole thing. There are plenty of people lining up around the block to explain to us exactly how the Internet is leading rapidly towards the apocalypse, but a more measured, thoughtful approach to the issue is much harder to find.
Recently, Paul Miller wrote an article for The Verge about his year spent offline. The article begins with the simple sentence, “I was wrong.” Despite starting off the year convinced that the Internet was ruining him and was largely responsible for the things that frustrated him about himself, Miller concluded by the end of the year that taking oneself offline doesn’t change who you are as a person. The frustrating parts of his personality didn’t go away, they just expressed themselves differently. And despite all the talk about how the Internet isolates people, Miller found the opposite to be true. The thing he missed most about life without the Internet, he recalls, was the ability to easily interact with people. “There's a lot of ‘reality in the virtual,” Miller writes “and a lot of ‘virtual’ in our reality.” But don’t think that means the world is ending.
Which is a good thing, too, because barring some truly extraordinary circumstances, the Internet is here to stay. Instead of trying to fight it or reject it, we should be exploring it, trying to understand how it affects us on a human level. This is where books like Note to Self come in. Simone’s novel is about the Internet, but it is also about people and the Internet, and does not take a black or white view of anything. Anna’s problems involve the Internet, sure, but they are also caused by her passive personality, her insecurity, and her lack of direction. The narcissistic characters who hurt her are uniquely shaped by the Internet age, but their self-centered, callous egomania is not something new to the 21st century. And without spoling the ending, I will say that Anna’s journey does not end in some grand rejection of the Internet as an evil force which enslaved her and opened her up to betrayal. Instead of demonizing the Internet, Simone lets it suffuse her novel in an authentic, matter-of-fact way.
I hope to see more novels like this one. The sooner we all begin exploring how and why the Internet affects us and shapes our lives, the better equipped our society will be to manage the inevitable changes it will continue to bring. In a world intent on treating the Internet as though it must be black or white, it is refreshing to find someone ready to recognize that it is actually very, very gray.Image: Mathew Spencer