$13.95, 176 pages
Walter Kirn’s fourth novel, The Unbinding, appeared in serial form in Slate, the online news and culture magazine, between mid-March and June of 2006, during which time Kirn, who lives in Livingston, posted roughly two chapters per week. The novel then appeared in paperback earlier this year. This review appears now because it’s never too late to steer readers toward a good book. And because beyond being merely good, The Unbinding is an important piece of work.
The story opens with an entry from protagonist Kent Selkirk’s journal, which he posts on his web page, MyStory.com. In this installment, Selkirk discusses the rewards of working as a counselor for AidSat, a spooky online help service/surveillance center much like OnStar. Clients can call AidSat when they’re having trouble assembling their kids’ toys, when they’ve lost a recipe, after they’ve been fired from their jobs, when they’ve been abducted—any reason at all. AidSat counselors read scripted advice and, if necessary, monitoring callers through bracelets and ear jacks. As it turns out, Sabrina Grant, an attractive but dull woman in Selkirk’s apartment complex, is an AidSat customer. Before asking Sabrina for a date, Selkirk asks a colleague to retrieve her file from the database. For her part, Sabrina has her sister Google Selkirk. Meanwhile, due to a mix-up, Sabrina’s been tagged as a potential terrorist and is therefore being watched by a government agent named Rob Robinson.
The plot unfolds in a series of memos, emails and web postings, logged primarily by the three main characters as they rifle through each other’s dirty laundry. All the spying culminates in a showdown between Selkirk and Robinson. Along the way, there’s enough whip-smart social commentary to please a Don DeLillo fan, enough satirical humor for the George Saunders fan and a conspiracy theory loony enough to satisfy any Thomas Pynchon fan. If the book feels thinner and less refined than what those writers produce, remember that Kirn is cranking out literary copy at a journalist’s pace.
Slate’s promotion boasts that the novel “takes advantage of, and draws inspiration from, the capacities of the Internet.” What does this mean? Techno-wizardry and multi-media acrobatics that herald the death of the bound novel? A new age of writers who process the zeitgeist in nanoseconds and render it in hypertext that plunges readers deep into the core of cyberspace? Muses who text up-to-the minute inspiration? Thankfully, nothing as grand as all that.
As Kirn describes it, the rewards of writing serially online are a bit more mundane. In the introduction to the paperback, the author remarks, “the greatest opportunity offered to a novelist by the Web is not the ability to dazzle an audience with unorthodox content, but the chance to address it in real time, in something like the way live performers do…I could write a section on Wednesday, send it to my editor on Thursday, and visit it on the Web on Friday morning. What’s more, I could coordinate my tale with current events. The week that a movie opened up in the real world, it could also open in my made-up world. My characters could rush right out and see it along with everybody else.”
Essentially this means that the novel has some quirks and nuances that immediately make it interesting, but not necessarily engrossing. For example, Kent Selkirk critiques Mission: Impossible III within days of its real-world premiere. Big deal. And Sabrina Grant receives a link to a Boston Globe article on Kirn’s project when she asks her online counselor about something she’s heard of called “The Unbinding.” Pretty clever, sure, but in the end, Kirn’s just throwing postmodern lit profs a bone when he pulls stunts like that. Then there’s a reference to the national talk radio show hosted by “a vicious female psychologist” who is often “too drunk to start her car.” If you follow Kirn’s link in the original Slate version (still available at www.slate.com/features/theunbinding), you will be directed to Dr. Laura’s homepage. Alas, while jabs at the nastiest creature on the airwaves are always welcome, they do little to imbue a book with literary merit.
Kirn’s observations about surveillance, identity, love and sanity are what make the book important. Basically, everybody in this book knows, or thinks they know, everyone’s business. But no one really knows anything. Since these people have no private lives, they have no selves. There’s nothing to know, and therefore, no reason to spy. But still, these characters can’t help peering over each other’s shoulders. What else is there to do when you have no true interests? In an angry e-mail, Robinson tells Selkirk, “You were monitoring my communications, but my communications are no more ‘me’ than the squeak of my tennis shoes on a hardwood floor is.”
Robinson is right, of course. The problem is that, like everyone else in the book, his communications are also the sum total of his existence. As absurd as the plot gets, we lament the eventual erasure of Kent, Sabrina, and Rob, because Kirn never lets us forget that even as we laugh at them, we may be bearing witness to our own disappearance.