Write This Book

Lineland: Mortality and Mercy on the Internet's
Pynchon-L@Waste.Org Discussion List (IAM, 1997)
by Jules Siegel, Christine Wexler, et al.

a review by Briggs Nisbet

New literature of the end of the millennium is often a hodgepodge of confession, gossip, story telling, and testimonial. Never before has the "I" been as directly representational of the author as now. As authors have become celebrities and their lives public record, readers are discovering what writers have always known: much writing is autobiographical. In previous literary periods there were distinct boundaries for the use of the first person singular, and for some, it was necessary to write under a pseudonym (women had a worse time getting published than they do today). Writers today are more willing to experiment with literary structure and to acknowledge their debt to personal experience.

Some of the most direct, personal, and freewheeling writing today is found on the Web. Sheer volume may partly account for this - everybody on the Web has something to say to someone sometime. It's as if we have returned to the epistolary era of Jane Austen when letter writing was as common, and perhaps as frequent, as phone calls are today. Although some are cursory in their e-mail correspondence, for others this informal letter writing blossoms into impromptu literary eloquence, or explodes into diatribe or humorous confessional. Many on-line writing forums are not filtered through the conventional editing process of print publications. Web 'zines are particularly democratic in their submission and selection policies, if they have any at all.

Web writers are more available to their audiences than writers and publishers in the print trade. Readers of on-line writing can usually respond directly to the author's e-mail address. And often, authors write back. Writers also find each other; collaborations occur; friendships are made and, although no one's figured out how to cash in on it, communities evolve. Not that all this hasn't happened before; but before, writers had to gather in the same geographic locale - say, Paris or North Beach - and now they can be at home, wherever they are.

If Gutenberg's movable type made it possible for a First Amendment that guaranteed a free press, then the Web may move that paper boundary further, perhaps even past the profit-margin barriers of corporate publishing companies. Or not. One interesting manifestation of this transformation in the world of literature is the Web book- a paper book of writing published first on the Web. Bookstores haven't yet put up the "Web Books" sign on their shelves but the new genre is in its infancy. There are a handful of these books we're aware of, more definitely on the way, and others undoubtedly available only in limited circulation.

Lineland, by Jules Siegel, Christine Wexler, et al. pushes the envelope of what we think of as a book. The back cover blurb asks, "Is it a true-life novel? Personal journalism? An uncanny hoax?" Perhaps all of the above. But to regular readers of electronic mailing lists, the subtitle is more explanatory: Mortality and Mercy on the Internet's Pynchon-L@Waste.Org Discussion List. Not a mailing list reader myself, only the reference to notoriously secretive novelist Thomas Pynchon gave me any clues as to what was behind the cover.

Not sure if it was fiction or fantasy, I picked up the moderately-sized volume (192 pages, including frontmatter) and flipped to the back. It has an index. Entries range from "Beach Boys" to "Nabokov, Vladimir" and include several references to Pynchon and his family members. Looking up "etaoin shrdlu" I walked into this discussion of Pynchon's famous opus, "Gravity's Rainbow" via e mail message:

I wouldn't read too much into Pynchon's use of a play on the string ETAOIN SHRDLU. It's a very familiar thing to people older than, say, 50. Many of us used it for years to stand for "a meaningless string of letters" without being aware of its origins in the top row of keys on a Linotype. Pynchon makes names out of all sorts of bits and pieces of common usage, often without much effort to exploit the original meanings.

Not yet older than 50, I was not familiar with this tidbit of printing lore. I decided to go back to the book's beginning to see what I could make of this literary quilt, passing a number of B&W photos of long-haired women with bared breast(s) on my way to the publisher's Preface. There I was introduced to a former software engineer who, when queried by the author about a possible book about Thomas Pynchon, responded, "Who the hell is Thomas Pynchon?" Luckily for the author, the publisher was more interested in him than in the reclusive literary lion.

IAM, or Intangible Assets Manufacturing, the press that published Lineland, is the creation of Dale L. Larson, a former Amiga programmer and entrepreneur, who progressed from publishing Amiga-related software (to the dedicated community out there of users commited to this formally defunct platform) to publishing an Amiga book, to publishing books of literary content written or collected by Internet authors. Through his e-mail correspondence with Jules Siegel, Larson became interested in the man, and then the book. Indeed, he decided he would have to spend time with Siegel in the remote Mexican resort where the author had lived in near exile for the last 15 years, as an essential part of publishing the book. Thus the publisher's preface starts the shifting of frames that constitutes the structure of Lineland.

In the author's Introduction, Jules Siegel provides the reader with a not-so-brief and decidedly personal summary of his life, including his own definition of the author's "full creative control," and an unusually succinct explanation of computers and the Internet. In addition, we learn that he initiated his journalistic career in the 1960s and '70s with articles in Playboy, and Rolling Stone, among other widely read magazines of the day, and wrote several books. He also had friends - like Mario Puzo, Bruce J. Friedman, and Pynchon - who became famous.

Much of Lineland is about Siegel's escapades in the Sixties, and his memories of the famous and infamous from those times. It also chronicles how the culture he was so intimate with has changed in the meantime while Siegel has been laying low in Mexico. Memoirs of the famous and near-famous are old hat in the book trade but Siegel found his entre into the genre in an unusual way. He became the central figure in an e-mail discussion group drama. And this is where the memoir and Lineland part ways. Once again, the frames through which the reader reads this book are shifting. Now, in addition to the publisher and the author characters, we have the on-line participants in the discussion group.

But first, we experience Jules Siegel discovering the Web. "After I looked up my name, I looked at some sex sites and then I wrote Arthur a letter." Arthur Kretchmer is Playboy's Editorial Director, with whom Siegel carried on an e-mail correspondence, and who becomes another of Lineland's characters. Kretchmer on e-mail: "...It's guy mail. Neatness doesn't count. If it's more than eight lines long, I don't read it." His inadvertent gender-association aside, neatness is irrelevant to e-mail (it's letter writing after all), and the 8-line rule is only for business execs and people on per diem. Lineland is proof that e-mail is, in fact, the whole enchilada as far as many Web correspondents are concerned.

The plot of Lineland is a little like Woody Allen's film The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which Mia Farrow is romanced by a Hollywood leading man who jumps right out of the movie screen and into her kitchen. In this case, a somewhat obscure on-line discussion group is one day presented with the virtual presence of an icon, well, a former colleague of an icon anyway. This happens when Jules, surfing the Web for himself, discovers that he is "...a sub-set of the Thomas Pynchon industry..." An article of his published in Playboy, "Who is Thomas Pynchon.. and Why Is He Taking Off With My Wife?" was part of the Pynchon-L@Waste.Org discussion-group archive.

Siegel joins the list, and his outsize personality bursts onto the scene like Elmer Gantry at a Methodist church picnic. The book reader, now the "lurker" at this virtual Web interaction may give up in exasperation, or be moved to tears and laughter as this unlikely combination of characters wends their way to a conclusion, a disclaimer (from one of the list participants who did not want his e-mail included in the book), and an epilogue, in which Siegel expounds on the future of the book.

You may, like I did, become impatient with the Siegel personality as it crowds the conversation with his exploits, opinions, and machismo. But the story is more than its main character. This book isn't a dialogue but a frame that one person, the author, has put around a moment and a gathering of voices. The dialogue that was the original list discussion is now a story and has just one author. But the characters also wrote themselves.

Does Lineland succeed at being a book? Yes. Does the book succeed? Yes. And no. It may depend on the reader. If there is a question about whether or not the Web is creating a new literature, I think there is no question about its creating a new audience. Whether or not that Web audience will voice a demand for Web books is yet to be seen. I was interested in reading and reviewing Lineland because I am interested in Web publishing, having found there the opportunity to publish my own and others' creative efforts without having to scale the daunting walls that commercial publishers put up for unknown writers.

On the Web, readers are free to form their own opinions of what is good writing, although for many good writing is maybe less important than interesting content. Which brings me back to an assessment of Lineland as literature. When printing presses were new technology, nobody read novels because they hadn't been invented yet. But a public literature evolved as more people became readers. There could have been no Lineland before e-mail, and it is a fair representation of what's going on out there on the Web, a drama that computer-enabled and computer-less readers alike may enjoy. Its success as literature comes from the vitality of its voices, the various e-mail authors whose ideas and personalities are framed, momentarily, by the pages of a book.

Copyright © 1997
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