Illustrations by teo zamudio
“You turn me on.” “You get my motor running.” “You spin me right round like a record, baby.” Propulsive, automatic, gas- and electricity-powered modern machines became a dominant metaphor for our sexual being over the course of the twentieth century. Everyday figures of speech and pop songs alike pointed to an understanding of our desirous selves as mechanical constructions—automatons out cruising for action.
Fill up the tank, turn the key, hit the gas: this is how we do it. Or, as James Brown put it, “Get on up, like a sex machine.”
But what has the rise of social media, big data, mobile computing, and Google done to our sex machines? What have been the consequences of the digitalization of desire?
Guillaume Morissette’s hilarious new novel, New Tab, might offer some answers. Instead of a well-oiled engine, the libido in the digital age has become more like an endless video game, wherein pursuing lovers is “like stacking blocks really high in Tetris while waiting for a straight line that might never come.”
Instead of moving from point A to point B, longing moves horizontally, without purpose or direction. And it has nothing to hold onto; at one point the novel's narrator explains: “I didn’t like things, experienced most of reality at the brain level, thought of my body as more of a holding cell than a temple of pleasure.”
That narrator, our protagonist, the 27-year-old Thomas, works in the video game industry. His body is resistant to his urges and commands, unlike the clean digital interfaces he and his peers have mastered and absorbed: “Every week felt like a botched copy-paste of the week before it, work for five consecutive days and then a pause of two days and then that same dream-nightmare all over again.”
He considers himself an avatar that he wishes he could Photoshop, yet he never seems able to move his mouth, hands, or feet in the way he had in mind. “There was nothing I could do to hurt reality. I couldn’t set it on fire, couldn’t put it up for auction on eBay, couldn’t pump it full of helium and then wave it goodbye while driving away in a lime-green Jeep Wrangler,” he sort-of laments.
Thomas is alienated by his mind-numbing work at a software company that designs profitable but banal apps (his current project involves updating an already-successful Scrabble game), and he begins writing poetry at work as a means of escaping the drudgery. However, he feels both drawn to and repelled by the gritty, youthful energy of Montreal, where “everyone’s a DJ or something.”
Relationships with others are opened, lightly skimmed, maybe bookmarked (but probably not), and closed
Drugs, music, and sex don’t offer Dionysian climax; they’re more like quickly-depleting power-ups: “I was starting to view parties as an infinitely renewable resource, like I could skip one and all that would do is make ten more appear. Still, it was comforting to know that parties were there if I needed them to be there, like a low-hanging fruit.”
Pleasure is a difficult game, or dozens of simultaneous difficult games, none of which appears to be more or less important than any other, the rules and objectives of which have been obscured. “Maybe I didn’t want to live in a city so much as observe one from a close distance, like in Sim City,” he observes.
Obviously, the pixelated worldview Thomas has inherited makes serious romantic relationships with “impenetrable three-dimensional emotion factories” (i.e. “actual people”) a challenge. He is both deeply lonely and averse to contact. Despite all the self-loathing, he wishes he “could just drink something and feel loved, the same way I can drink tea and feel awake.” When communication becomes instantaneous and ubiquitous, we want our slow bodies and hearts to catch up.
Our hero does strike up a fling with Romy, the editor of a small local zine that has published some of his poetry, but it doesn’t go very far, and he seems conflicted about even caring about this. In New Tab’s world, desire is empty and disjointed—just another chat on Facebook, just another stream of tweets. Relationships with others are opened, lightly skimmed, maybe bookmarked (but probably not), and closed.
It might seem strange to want to look to a novelist for an understanding of our digital condition. (You’d think that crowd-sourced smut archives like YouPorn or “3d sex adult virtual worlds” like The Red Light Center might have more to tell us about ourselves in the era of online eros.)
But Marshall McLuhan wouldn’t have thought so. He claimed that old media actually had an important role to play in generating awareness about his own postwar techno-scape; media like print could “counterblast” or re-tune the senses. Friedrich Kittler has more recently made similar claims about the power of text. “Pushed to their margins,” writes Kittler in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, “even obsolete media become sensitive enough to register the signs and clues of a situation.”
For his part, Morissette takes advantage of his “obsolete” medium’s unique malleability in his rendering of our softening drives. There are no chapters; instead, sequences—some long and full of story, others short and discontinuous, more like aphoristic tweets than narrative—scroll down the page:
- Name a time of the day and I have eaten cereal at it.
- On Facebook, a status update from Romy informed me that she had completed her degree with lackluster grades and was now looking for a rideshare to New York.
- I thought, ‘I don’t want to make an effort, that sounds like so much effort.’
The form of the novel mirrors the existential/erotic malaise of its narrator, who feels pulled in every which way (and thus nowhere) by the sensory inputs around him.
Yet, though Thomas has trouble finding coherence in his experiences and relationships, we are able to grapple with a meta-coherent document of Fragmentation 2.0 via the printed word: Morissette takes on the wired wasteland by finding both refuge and vantage in literary art. For Thomas at the end of the novel, too, the creative act seems to give him some satisfaction and sense of completion. “It felt like I had just made love to this person, even though I hadn’t met this person,” he thinks after someone compliments his poetry at a public reading. Reading and writing allow him to make some sense of his chaotic boredom—and to modulate it, finally, into a pleasure.
Some recent big films have wanted to talk about digitality and love (e.g. Her, Transcendence, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but the star system and Hollywood conventions make certain explorations difficult. The characters are always going to be too stable. (“Coherent human beings,” as Thomas half-enviously, half-curiously describes the idealized images of self-actualization around him.)
Inventive works of fiction like New Tab, on the other hand, can go where “Scarlett Johansson” and “Johnny Depp” simply cannot go—down to the messy, abject, and irresolvable dilemmas of our digitalizing desire. It’s full of glitches, and it’s pretty cold, unlike some of those steamy and streamlined sex machines of yore. But for now it’s all we’ve got.