The worst thing to happen to fiction might be the cell phone.
Fiction relies so heavily on human frailty–on messages that never come, last (often misunderstood) words, and missed connections. These are the very things that we try to eliminate–or at least circumvent–with technology. When my daughter used to come home on rare weekends or breaks from college, she slept with her cell phone under her pillow so that her boyfriend could call or text her at any time of the day or night. I had a student who tried to do everything in my class–from reading the texts to taking notes to writing papers–on his Iphone. There wasn’t a chance that either one of them would miss a message or even a tidbit of news from a friend.
Recently, I read a movie review in The New Yorker of a new release that is based on a 1973 novel and actually set in 1972 Sydney, Australia. At once, I wondered why a novel written in 1973 was coming to the big screen now, unless it was a commentary on the era. But it isn’t. The plot revolves around a dying old woman and two, warring children, who attend her death bed in the hopes of a large inheritance, bringing with them all the baggage from their youth. It’s face-to-face confrontation. There’s no Skyping through the muddle, no faxxing the altered will back and forth between Sydney and Europe (where the children live), no Internet searches for “how can i thwart my greedy sibling?” Even the actors cast in the movie seem to eschew a connected age; I can’t imagine either Judy Davis or the great Geoffrey Rush with a Smartphone 5.
The Olympic opening ceremony in London recently tried to bring a human element to technology, with its set piece about two teenagers who fall in love when a cell phone is lost. Although I admit to being an old geezer, I was far more wholly engrossed in the ceremony until that point. I was enchanted by the tearing up of the green pastures to build the smokestacks and behemoth factories of the Industrial Era, and I enjoyed the nighmare monsters coughed up by the skit about the National Health Service. In contrast, the teenagers’ act felt empty, soulless, colorless and artificial. I went to the refrigerator.
Try to envision some of the great love stories of our time coupled with our technology. Romeo and Juliet? Dude, call her on your cell and let her know that the poison is only a gag. Casablanca? A few timely emails (encrypted, of course, so the Nazis can’t read them) would have informed Ilsa that Victor was still alive. Paris would never have happened, and she never would have walked into the one gin joint in the one town in this one world where Rick was pining for her. And imagine Elizabeth Bennett texting Mr. Darcy rather than the witty repartee of Pride and Prejudice: OMG, like u r such a stuffed shirt! :0)
The Brontes certainly would take a hit in our century. Cathy could just Google Heathcliff to find out where he was, thus preventing soul-wrenching, broken-hearted pain, abuse and death for a number of characters. And Jane Eyre would never have wandered the moors or heard the voice that called her back to Thornfield. Instead, she would have kept up on the situation via Rochester’s Tweets. “House almost burned to ground only one wing standing.” “Blind in both eyes and hand all crabbed up from damage while trying to save Bertha.” “Wish governess would come back. Jane, where are you?” #crazywife
I prefer a world where isolation was involuntary, and that is why I love the American West. The West is still romantic, in so many ways; there are still breath-stealing vistas, despite the best efforts of developers and oil companies. There is still the sense of open space, of untamed tracts of land and waters. As a society, we seem reluctant to let go of the idea of the man (or woman) alone, the non-communicator, the anti-social hermit vigilante man vs. nature rugged individualist. You know, the stereotypical Westerner. Look at Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” or the super-charged loners of Cormac McCarthy’s fiction. And remember that every stereotype has a basis in truth.
I’ve set my next novel, Clean Cut, in a pre-technological era–1985, before internet updates on wildfires and tracking collars on re-introduced wolves and (in some cases) even land lines had reached the lonesome towns near Yellowstone National Park. I played around with other time frames–the 1990s, the early 2000s–but nothing felt as right as the era when communication wasn’t immediate and loss could not be mitigated by keeping a Facebook page or living online memorial for the deceased. I wanted my characters wrapped up in themselves, in their immediate environment, unable to see past the mountains that encircle the town or the single two-lane road that leads out of it.
It’s not that I am anti-technology (I published my book through an online service and am obviously keeping this blog), but the world seemed to be more intriguing, more mysterious and fun when there was the possibility of screw-ups that couldn’t be solved with a quick IM or text.