Translit Is Neither New Nor Subversive

by James McGirk

ScreenHunter_06 Mar. 19 10.30Reviewing Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men in The New York Times, Douglas Coupland proposes, “what must undeniably be called a new literary genre. For lack of a better word let’s call it Translit.” Translit reflects “an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once—a state of possibly permanent atemporality given to us courtesy of the Internet.” Artists are responding to this, Coupland says, by mashing together time and place, an effect “not unlike watching a TV show that’s simultaneously happening on multiple channels, a story filmed in different eras using differing technologies, but which taken together tell the same story.

As a strategy this is not new. This new genre sounds a lot like Moby Dick, minus the throbbing heartbeat of Captain Ahab pursuing his white whale, or the multi-faceted storytelling of a Thousand-and-One Nights. Every novel is a soup of partially digested hanks of literary matter. A typical chapter is a hybrid of drama, description and transcribed speech. This soupiness is the reason why novels have defied easy categorization into genre since they evolved from the golden triad of Greek drama, tragedy and comedy.

Nailing down a new genre and coining a new term to slot into the canon is harmless fun. What is disturbing about this “Translit,” however, is Coupland's suggestion that it is an effective strategy for dealing with, “interconnectivity across time and space, just as interconnectedness defines the here and now.” The spacey refraction that Coupland is so impressed with is a feint and one that contemporary literature would do well to expose.

“In Translit… a long-form solidity emerges, even though the links between substories can be as ethereal as a snatch of music, a drug-induced sensation, a quality of light on a rock formation. The Translit author assumes the reader has the wits to connect the dots and blend the perfumes.” This seems like a powerful idea, that an author can leave space between stories for something far larger to be imputed, but without the substrate of a central plot, without being rooted in time and place and history, a story becomes as weightless as the aforementioned light beam on a boulder.

Coupland begins his essay by recalling September 11th, remembering the people scurrying around and thinking how little had changed since then besides the number of gadgets being carried. This seems an astounding thing to say. September 11th was not an ahistorical moment at all, certainly not for the 3,000 or so who perished in the rubble or the Afghans slaughtered later that month as American helicopters came thudding across the border, cannons blazing in retaliation. While Coupland’s Vancouver home might seem ahistorical in 2012, for the rest of the world, with Israel and Iran on the brink of war, a world economy on the precipice of total collapse, an Arab world casting off its chains and deciding whether to lurch toward liberal humanism or fundamental Islam, looking at the world and seeing a pellucid place capable of only being rendered in soft pastel seems blind, even arrogant.

What Hari Kunzru and David Mitchell render so well in their books is the thin overlay of information, the radiant byproduct of late capitalism. It makes for an entertaining and flattering read but as a strategy of subversion it is wanting a target. An author who actually stares at the machine in the face, and in the process creates a seriously subversive piece of writing is Helen DeWitt. She does so by firmly rooting her story in contemporary America.

Her latest novel “Lightning Rods” is about Joe, a door-to-door salesman who does what so many of us who live in first-world countries are told to do, he turns his passion into a business. In this case he turns a sexual fantasy of imagining women trying to hide the fact that they are being penetrated from behind into a sexual harassment abatement device and sells it to corporations.

The beauty of DeWitt’s book is how plausible everything is, and how clean everyone’s consciousness remains as they effective convert sex into a bodily function as mundane and as accommodated for in an office environment as defecation. She creates a space that the reader can enter and ideas they can interact with. Anyone who has ever worked in an office or felt strange undertows of subterranean human impulse in an organized environment can relate. It forces the reader to at least consider themselves in relation to the story, as opposed to passively observing and skating over the surface the way someone might read a Translit novel.

“Lightning Rods” shows Joe’s technique being conceived of, experimented with, and sold, experiences the repercussions and prevarications as the device slips further and further from Joe’s fantasy, as users (and the marketplace) adjust to the device and adapt it to their often wildly divergent needs. The book effortlessly exposes how thrown together and half-assed decisions made in an office environment are, how strange it is to work in captivity with fellow homo sapiens, particularly through the medium of corporate bureaucracy and government regulation. The plot is as simple and ruthlessly effective as Moby Dick’s and not only does it tell a hilarious, gripping story with compelling, realistic characters but it inspires just as many refracted bits of brilliance in its readers as Kunzru or Mitchell do. The execution of this one salesman's idea can unpack into a history of the United States or industrialization or even civilization itself.

Coupland says that, “genre-shifting is as fundamental to working with words as is punctuation and knowing the difference between serifs and sans-serifs.” His evidence for how subversive Translit is, is “the fact that China has recently sought to suppress time travel as a creative device for some artists.” Coupland feeds this into an argument for interconnectivity as a model for the modern world, but interconnectivity is not the reason why China banned time travel. Without understanding why China might be threatened by a portrayal of something like a successful Tiananmen Square protest or a what China might be like today without the Great Proletarian Revolution is about as pointlessly reductive as claiming serifs are as important as syntax to working with words.

Interconnectivity is an illusion, a fraud that contemporary literature should go out of its way to expose. The Internet is not a compelling model for literature; a novel is an eight-hour mind meld with another human being, the most obvious evidence that other people think as much and feel as deeply as the reader does. The Internet skates over the surface of the Real, delivers it in safely masticated chunks, the way “Translit” deploys history. For better or worse we own the world we live in now and trying to refract ourselves out of the sprawl of history is to indulge in illusion. Fukuyama’s End of History perished in the flames of the World Trade Center. No need to revisit it in our fiction.