Literary fiction was a term used by the upper classes to suggest books which paired pointless sex with ruminations on the nature of mortgages were of greater merit than books which paired pointless sex with guns and violence.
The CIA funded literary fiction because people at the CIA believed that American literature was excellent propaganda and would help fight the Russian. People at the CIA believed that literary fiction would celebrate the delights of a middle-class existence produced by American dynamism.[…]
The result was sixty years of good novels about the upper middle class and their sexual affairs.[…]
A side effect of the CIA’s funding the of the good novel was to ensure that American literature was hopeless at addressing the pace of technological innovation. This is because the defining quality of any good novel was the limits of its author’s imagination.
And the authors of good novels were terminable bores. (Jarett Kobek—I Hate the Internet)
It has been said that the difference between a comedian and humorist is that a comedian makes you laugh, while a humorist can only cause the corner of your mouth to twist into a smirk and make you remark, perhaps only to yourself, “that’s funny”. Despite the collapse of high/low distinctions in media culture over the last few decades, those who comprise the upper classes still consider the later to be a worthwhile diversion, while the former is simply crass. Thus, whenever a comedian attains some level of acclaim that results in them entering the world of high cultural consideration, it becomes necessary to make clear that they are “not just a comedian”. A good example of this lionisation is the late Bill Hicks. So moved were many in the intellectual establishment of the 1990s by the singular voice of Hicks that they had to place him in a special category, lest anyone find out that, they too, enjoyed a well-crafted dick joke to the point of near ecstasy just like the hoi polloi. Hicks was thus framed as a preacher or a prophet, pointing out the hypocrisies of Western society in its victorious afterglow of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To an extent, this narrative is true. But no one really mentions the routine in which Hicks expresses his desire for a freshly rolled cigarette “moistened shut with Claudia Schiffer’s pussy”. Preach brother!
This is not meant as a slam against Hicks, it is instead a critique of the lazy kind of narrative construction that is often employed by cultural gatekeepers to maintain and reproduce what they understand as a power enshrined by status. It is in this frame that I want to talk about I Hate the Internet by Jarett Kobek. As I have written elsewhere, this novel is less a novel and more an excuse for an extended, hilarious and well-informed rant about the way in which the network technologies and platforms of the internet have intersected with the military, capitalism and the yawning pain of subjectivity, to make life demonstrably worse. There are characters, there is a narrative structure, there are investigations into the inner lives of the characters through the narrative, but that said, I still want to buy into the claim made by Kobek’s narrator throughout the book that it is a “bad novel”.
Throughout this book, the narrator repeats the refrain that this, the book you are reading, is a “bad novel”. But, paradoxically, this claim is what allows the book to do what it does, and to chastise literary fiction for its incompetence in addressing the effects of the pace of technological innovation. I think we can see this inadequacy clearly when we look at what should have been, despite the lukewarm reviews, a “good novel”, Dave Eggers’ novel, The Circle. This book has the necessary literary pedigree to be considered a respectable piece of literary fiction, set to the task dealing with the frightening influence the large technology companies have over our lives, but it fails to do more than fiddle around the edges of what is at stake. (Truth be told, I only managed to get 30-odd pages into the book before being overcome with a feeling of the weary inevitability of the books failure to address its subject, though I am assured by Alexander Buk-Swienty, who finished the book, that my supposition was correct). As opposed to this “good novel”, I Hate The Internet is able to engage its subject much more directly, which gives the topic the urgency it deserves while retaining the kind of fictive detachment that will arrest the reader’s sensibility and attention. In short, the reason I think it can do this is that it is indeed a “bad novel” by the standards that render most novels so culturally irrelevant. But instead, I Hate The Internet is an excellent novelisation of a piece of avant-garde stand up comedy.
It is not lost on Kobek that in writing a critique of the ineffectual chattering classes, he has made a production for those classes to chatter about.
This reading has not come from nowhere. Kobek himself has mentioned in interviews that a major influence on his writing I Hate the Internet was the work of the prominent British stand-up comedian, Stewart Lee. And this influence was not lost on Lee, who posted about Kobek’s use of negative reviews to promote the book on his website’s plagiarists corner. So delighted was Kobek with this that it seems to have resulted in a friendship. As has been exhaustively described in other settings, Lee is unlike the majority of stand up comedians. His stylistic hallmarks of refined erudition intercut with crass vulgarity, layerings of irony and persona so thick that when he appears to be attacking another comedian’s work or on the nature of playing to audience expectations, it is instead an attack on the persona he is presenting to the audience, and even the concept of “performance’ itself. And but of course, there is the masterful… timing. In this remarkable section from the third series of recent stand-up specials Lee made for the BBC, we can see many of these techniques at play. Through repetition, regression ad absurdum, and an oscillations between different characters’ voices, Lee works through the history of UK immigration and the different contributions each group has brought, from the Indian immigrants after World War Two, who invented Britain’s de facto national cuisine, to the beaker folk, thousands of year ago, who taught the ancient Brits to drink liquids out of cups. At the end we see the logic of xenophobia culminate in the final state of a death drive process of annihilation; the emptying out of reality leaving us with nothing. Which is what is truly desired.
This is the fractious climax of the piece. At that moment, we can feel the full absurdity of a racism so irrationally attached to the idea of national identity that it would cast the first fish to crawl up from the sea back into the water, lest “our land” be flooded by its ilk. But strangely for a stand-up bit, there is still another third or so to go. The section we could call “the nothing times”. But cooling off period is essential structurally as there is a great deal to unpack. For example, the performance of the climatic, semantically hilarious, line, “You get back in the sea… You finned cunt!”, is also frightening as Lee allows himself to be full inhabited by the xenophobes rage. A rage that is inseparable from a fear. And this fear is, in part, sympathetic. However, as this fear is defensively transmuted into aggression towards our aquatic pioneer with its “barely developed lungs”, we also see how the anger makes those who express it smaller. Reducing them to vessels for the fascistic logic, they have allied themselves with to delivery them from fear and uncertainty.
Despite this proximity to performance art practice, Lee makes no bones about the fact that he is a comedian. Not to everyone’s taste, no but that is not a requirement. The point is that this craft/art form is not in need, as Lee sees it, of elevation through it subsumption into a more traditionally noble form. It is not the work of a preacher. It is not the work of a prophet. It is the work of a comedian. So, when I make the claim that Lee is one of the UK’s best living writers, I say this advisedly, because it is the writing that constructs his stand up comedy. But this is a form of writing that is also embedded in the performance practice engendered by the nature of touring as a stand-up; performing to indifferent and hostile audiences and playing with their expectations and responses. And I certainly am not referring his 2001 novel, The Perfect Fool. It’s fine. It is a passable shaggy dog story that is pretty technically sound. But what prevents it from brilliance is the obvious intention that it should be a good novel. Every innovation is situated within a set piece that plugs in, neatly, alongside an evenly paced narrative progression. But what is missing is the unhinged affects of his live performance, in which, despite their contrivance, one can be convinced that there is too much at stake for him to handle and that the show could disintegrate entirely due to something as petty as the audience not laughing quite on cue after a punchline.
It is not so much a matter of pointing out simple hypocrisy but pointing instead at the systemic inevitability of that hypocrisy in relation to a genuine, but ineffectual, desire to help.
Kobek’s “bad novel” achieves just this. Not only has he found ways to directly incorporate elements of Lee’s style into his text, such as mechanistically reporting the relative quantities of “eumelanin in the basal cell layer” of the epidermises of each character in a given scene. There is also a repeated bad joke about “the cupcake and the pastry” as a hideously unclear euphemism for anal and vaginal sex that the protagonist, Adeline, tries so hard to clear up it ends her relationship. But Kobek has also found ways to combine these techniques with the possibilities of written media. For example Lee’s erudition, which needs to feel as if it lives on the breath in a stand-up show, is a perfect mechanism for Kobek to illustrate the way in which we have become so saturated with information that it is at once difficult to discern what is relevant and what is not, and near impossible to stay on topic; as each proper noun seem to require tangent after tangent of explanation, like new tabs on a browser.
Though, more than anything, it is the complex layering of Lee’s ironic tone that Kobek incorporates into his work so well, because the subjects of interest in the novel—technology, capitalism, gentrification, misogyny and racism—require self-reflective narration. There is a particular example of Lee’s work, in addition to the one above, which displays this quite well by transforming his comic persona into the subject of critique. In this routine, while protesting the closure of a Hackney jazz club to be replaced by another Nando’s restaurant, Lee says he was confronted by a black woman who chastised him for protesting the development. She claimed the reason he was against the change was because of the apparent popularity of Nando’s among the black community. Lee’s attempts to defend himself against this charge fail with spectacular precision, which elegantly outlines the problematics of attempts of the privileged to resist the power structures that have benefited them so greatly.
‘“…jazz is a black music, so I’m not racist at all.
She said, “Yes, Jazz IS a black music,” she said, “but not the sort of jazz that you like.
“The free, improvised, experimental jazz,” she said, “though it has its roots in the innovations of black “performers like Sunny Murray or Albert Ayler, its chief sphere of influence is drawn from the white, European post-war avant-garde.”’
It is not so much a matter of pointing out simple hypocrisy but pointing instead at the systemic inevitability of that hypocrisy in relation to a genuine, but ineffectual, desire to help. I Hate The Internet is able to take this approach and play it out on a much larger scale. The whole book is about this very problematic. The ostensible main character, Adeline, is a successful creative professional who ends up becoming a target of scorn on the internet. We see the inconveniences this causes her throughout the novel, but in the end it leads to a surge in sale of her comic books. However, in one chapter in the middle of the book, we are shown the myopia of Adeline’s story, through the tale of Ellen Flintcraft, a young woman who dreamed of a moving away from her small town and building a life and career on the west coast, whose possibilites are all but destroyed when she becomes a victim of revenge porn. Because she is not a successful creative professional with a strong network and a decent income, and because her “offence” is more serious in the eyes of the troglodytes that enforce patriarchal pseudo-Christian morality online and IRL, Ellen is so much more vulnerable than Adeline, and so much less able to transcend the judgment of her peers by transforming this violation into professional exposure. When the tale of Ellen is set against that of Adaline’s, Kobek’s protagonist is contextualised, appropriately, as privileged.
She wasn’t kind of famous like Adeline and, unlike Adeline, she had nothing to sell.
Ellen was 22 years old and her life was over.
We are left to wonder why is this book not about Ellen instead. But the book moves on immediately and Ellen doesn’t even get a “bad novel” about her suffering. It is not lost on Kobek that in writing a critique of the ineffectual chattering classes, he has made a production for those classes to chatter about. This chapter is momentary attempt to rectify this and acknowledge his complicity in what he critiques.
Kobek’s novelisation of stand-up is a remarkable achievement because it does not simply try to elevate what some consider to be a lowly form of entertainment, but because it uses what is dangerous in stand-up, what is immediate about it, to shake literature free of its pious vitrine. We see this in the rant of the author’s cypher, J. Karacehennem, from the hills overlooking San Francisco. The rant has been hyped throughout the book with a reference to the speech of John Galt, the protagonist from Ayn Rand’s epic ode to capitalism and the capitalist class, Atlas Shrugged, but when the speech arrives, the self-consciousness of the event, instead, transforms it from a declaration of pseudo-philosophy, to the climax of well structured stand-up set. How else is one to read lines like:
“Fuck Steve Jobs and fuck your worship of Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was no more than nothing! His only distinction was that, unlike every other awful CEO in tech, he had a mild sense of design. His jeans were rubbish! His turtlenecks were awful! He owned seven percent of Disney!”
at the end of the pages long speech. Nothing really happens, except a nearby tourist swears at J. Karacehennem in Chinese. Her father had made a great deal of money in tech. Here Kobek is placing his writing before a synecdoche for a segment of the book’s potential audience and, with this, putting the lie to the notion that literature is some kind of sacred art form unaffected by the bias, prejudice and interests that surround and comprise it. If we are not to have an essentialist understanding of literature in particular and perhaps artwork in general, then we must acknowledge how the audience shapes the material almost as much as the work’s author. Nowhere is this more evident than in stand-up comedy, where a routine can be met with a stony silence that deforms the rest of the gig. And no one knows better how to inject the potential of this dynamic in the very text of his show, than Stewart Lee. Thinking about your audience is often frowned upon in artistic practices and sometimes for good reason. But this practice is not in itself the enemy of art making. If we value writing as a communicative act that is responsive as well as expressive, then perhaps there is something to learn from dynamism and tension of stand-up comedy at its finest that may inspire the great “bad novels” of our time.