Most people who’ve read David Foster Wallace understand that he “existed in a separate space-time continuum from the rest of us”, as Zadie Smith put it. As if his clinical dissection of contemporary pop culture wasn’t enough, Wallace wrote a very believable vision of a dystopic, entertainment-obsessed future as well. In his 1999 short fiction collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, there is a story called Datum Centurio, written entirely in dictionary entries that explain the various meanings conveyed by the word “date” in the future.
But this is no ordinary dictionary: at the beginning of the story, we are told that the entries are taken “From Leckie & Webster’s Connotationally Gender-Specific Lexicon of Contemporary Usage, a 600 GB DVD 3 Product with 1.6 GB of Hyperavailable Hot Text Keyed to 11.2 GB of Contextual, Etymological, Historical, Usage, and Gender-Specific Connotational Notes, Available Also with Lavish Illustrative Support in All 5 Major Sense-Media (Hardware Required), ©2096 by R. Leckie DataFestUnltd. (NYPHDC/US/4Grid).”
Well, the average internet-addicted 17-year-old today would love nothing more than Hyperavailable Hot Text, I wager; especially when it comes with Lavish Illustrative Support in All 5 Major Sense-Media. And that’s what Wallace was trying to tell us: that our culture is becoming more visually oriented every day. Plain old text just won’t cut it anymore — not even for a dictionary. Today, more and more writers are pulling out the stops, making sure that their books are also backed up by online and/or multimedia content. Some of these “digital augmentation” efforts are simple (like the new Vintage edition of Haruki Murakami’s The Wild Sheep Chase, which has a 3D cover: the book has 3D glasses inside) while others require weeks and weeks of extra work. Some are mere sideshows to attract a reader’s flagging attention, while others are more immersive experiences.
Take the case of Richard House’s 2013 novel The Kills, for instance. At the textual level (as future critics will doubtless refer to it), it is complex enough: four interconnected crime novels (Sutler, The Massive, The Kill and The Hit), released together as a 1,000-page behemoth. The Kills follows a globetrotting chain reaction of violent deaths, triggered off by a $53 million theft that happens in the wake of a botched business deal in war-torn Iraq. In the digital edition of the book, the text is linked to a total of two hours of additional video material: short films set in Cuba, Vietnam, Italy, USA, Morocco and several other countries. Amazingly, all of these films were shot and edited by House himself, in the same 18-month stretch where he was ostensibly super-busy, writing one of the longest novels of recent times.
There are other add-ons: at one point, the text is following the fate of a character who has gone missing (disappearance and mistaken identity is almost as important a theme as death in The Kills). If you click the link embedded in the text, you can listen to voice messages left by the character’s mother: by turns complaining, conciliatory and finally, scared about his well-being. In another section, an animation sequence explaining a military plan pops up. Baudrillard surely smiles beyond the grave at interventions like these.
In an FAQ published on Pan MacMillan’s official The Kills page, House explained why he doesn’t think the additional material is essential for the plot.
“The Kills is complex. Plenty of stories are repeated across the four books, and I’m hoping the reader really enjoys this, but it was important that each book could stand alone as well as working as a series. I didn’t want to over-complicate the main story by having pieces of it told in one media, and pieces told in other. It’s important that the books themselves have integrity, are a complete thing, which means the extras had to be about the characters, or the characters’ world — for a writer, that’s an interesting prospect.”
According to the author, the idea behind the extras was something like the choose-your-own-adventure books usually targeted at children. “I’ll explain with an example from the first book. In Sutler there’s a small part where one character, Nathalie, is having a private conversation with another, Ford, and she becomes glum when she’s speaking about her family. As the story has its own propulsion, it would really slow things down to explain why at this point. There isn’t really any time and space to go into it. But with the extras, you open up that possibility without interrupting the story. It’s up to the reader.”
House had a big advantage, to be sure: he had been working in the visual arts for a long time. This is perhaps an indicator towards the kind of creator likely to come up with the hypertext masterpiece of the 2050s: an ambidextrous warrior, a multi-tasker with several different kinds of skill, juggling them all at will (comics creators have an edge here, for they are skilled at both writing and drawing). There’s absolutely no reason, for instance, that a talented musician cannot bring his/her musical ability to enhance a story that already works beautifully as a standalone text.
In fact, that last bit is already true, as readers of Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Bombay Blues have realised. Bombay Blues is a sequel to Hidier’s 2002 young adult novel Born Confused, following the travails of Dimple Lala, her Indian-American protagonist. Dimple’s boyfriend, Karsh, is a promising musician while she herself wants to be a professional photographer. The story follows the slow decline of their relationship and Dimple’s madcap adventures in Bombay. And thanks to Karsh — and Dimple’s own eclectic taste in music — the novel is chock-a-block with musical references as well as linguistic leaps of faith that only a musician could have pulled off. Sample this passage, where Dimple exhorts Karsh to play bhangra music at a fancy, high-pressure gig that could prove crucial for his career: here’s Hidier’s “bhangric shrugfest”.
“Gur nalon ishq mitha hi hi…! Love, sweeter than gur. It was cosmic. Dholphoric. We the tabla tribe, creating a unified beat with our two stretched skins. And that husk-rustic voice sang primordial, magnetic — Malkit Singhing it — then Karsh’s own overflowing it…count backwards from one, ready to rock, here it comes…his mic’d up call to his desi dance cohorts: Let me take you on a journey…”
It was fitting, then, that Hidier, along with collaborator Adam Patro (who makes music under the handle Atom Fellows), made an album called Bombay Spleen, a “booktrack” of original songs that tie in with the novel. The novel isn’t inspired by the songs or vice-versa: like House and his short films, these were created in the same period of time that Hidier was writing the 550-page book.
“Fictitious bands in the novel sing songs from the album. A lovely perk about working in both media was that if I was stuck, for example, on a particular scene, I could start singing about it and try to explore it that way. Conversely, if I was pondering a song, I could write the scene and discover the heart of it. This dance between the two forms kept me constantly in the flow.”
She told me: “The writing process for the book (Bombay Blues) and album was fully intertwined from inception to fruition: It took me three years of burning the candle at both ends to complete both — and they were finished within days of each other, during a very hectic NYC April spent in-studio with producer Dave Sharma by day, and doing my final book pass for editor David Levithan by night. It just felt like a natural way for me to explore and express this story: Books and music have been a part of my life since I was a child, and as an adult I was the frontwoman in bands in NYC and London. I’d also already made an album of original songs to accompany my first novel, Born Confused, two years after that book first released: When We Were Twins.”
With Bombay Blues and Bombay Spleen, the artistic process was fuelled throughout with “crossfeed”, as Hidier explained. “Bombay Blues is embedded with lyrics from Bombay Spleen; sections are written directly in poetry, and it ends with double codas (‘Bombay Browns’; ‘Bombay Blues’). Fictitious bands in the novel sing songs from the album. A lovely perk about working in both media was that if I was stuck, for example, on a particular scene, I could start singing about it and try to explore it that way. Conversely, if I was pondering a song, I could write the scene and discover the heart of it. This dance between the two forms kept me constantly in the flow. And as the songs developed further, primarily with my dream Spleen team of Atom Fellows, Marie Tueje, and Dave, it also afforded me some nicely noisy company along the long ‘silent’ writing way.”
I recently watched the music video for Heptanesia, one of the songs featured on Bombay Spleen (there’s a chapter of the same name in Bombay Blues). It’s a lovely, jazz-infused ode to Bombay that enjoyed a good run on MTV Indies. At the end of the song, I thought to myself: this has to be one of the nicest, most aesthetically pleasing ways to reel in new readers. As Bollywood knows very well, music is the perfect promotional medium. Its immediacy and approachability add up to a certain mnemonic quality that ordinary advertisements cannot come close to. As Hidier phrased it, “Music is hyphenless. Whole. It’s always here — not there.”
There is more than one way to create a buzz around your novel, however, as David Mitchell is proving to us, one creepy tweet at a time. The British author, known for his ventriloquist-like range of authorial voices and the dazzling structural complexity of his novels, is promoting his upcoming book Slade House these days. Mitchell has set into motion an elaborate cat-and-mouse game on Twitter. He has set up two accounts: Bombadil @i_bombadil and Lottie @Tuttielottie, both characters from the novel.
Lottie is a locked account but we get to know of her prolific tweeting via Bombadil (named after a beloved Lord of the Rings character), who appears to be a super-hacker of sorts. He is cyber-stalking the hell out of Lottie. His tweets have gone from slightly nutty to full-blown Unabomber madness; if these were real people, Lottie would most definitely have received a protective police cover by now. Most recently, Bombadil was gloating over how he ruined the life of Lottie’s fiancé, Carl, by sending embarrassing personal and professional mails to all his contacts, thus causing him to be arrested for breaching his company’s confidentiality clause. Here are the four back-to-back tweets that Mitchell wrote to tell us this:
“Breaking News! Carl in Sales@ Gargoyle, Shagger of a Certain Plain Receptionist, has had his work&personal email accounts cyberhacked! ALL emails sent to ALL Contacts. Gossip, slaggings off, backstabs, company data, passwords->2all&sundry. Awwwkwarrrd! WhoOhWhoOhWho would play such a sadistic trick? What coder genius has the skills? Who bears a grudge 2wards Saint Carl, Friend2All? Moi? Bombadil? Yr Mild-mannered obedient supergeek? What grudge cld I possibly have re:handsome charming upwardly upward Carl? Per-lease.”
Earlier, Bombadil had also referenced Edward Snowden in one of his frequent bouts of self-pity. “My m8 Ed (Snowden) suggested a therapist2discuss my ‘issues’. Maybe he’s right. It just feels so g’damn American, paying pro2spill yr guts2.”
Who exactly is the diabolical Bombadil? Where did he first come across Lottie? What are the motives of the shadowy Gargoyle Inc. that Carl works for? How does all of this tie in with Lottie’s still-locked Twitter account? Lit-nerds on Twitter (like this writer) have been in a tizzy these last few weeks, trying to keep with Mitchell’s spider-webbing tweets.
It would be a fallacy to think that these digital augmentations are incompatible with old school literary values: Mitchell, to cite just one of the writers we have discussed so far, is as old school as they come when it comes to his sentences: they sparkle with lyricism, indulge in erudite mischief and spin a good old-fashioned yarn effortlessly. It’s true that he is known for sprawling, very obviously ambitious novels like Cloud Atlas. But he is also capable of the more conventionally structured, slow-burning bildungsroman, like his 2006 novel Black Swan Green.
The lesson to be learnt, therefore, is that technology, if used competently (and not just for gimmickry) can give any kind of book a leg-up: children’s books, detective novels, science fiction, even monumental Hindi novels written decades ago. I spoke to the artist, writer and translator Daisy Rockwell, who is translating the late Hindi writer Upendranath Ashk’s famous six-novel series Falling Walls; the first volume was published by Penguin India earlier this year. She told me something that sounded very exciting indeed.
“I’m working on creating a website to go with my translations of Upendranath Ashk’s Falling Walls series. The books are very detailed, and the protagonist, Chetan, walks endlessly through the streets of Jalandhar, Lahore and Shimla in 1930s India. I want to create some interactive maps to show his path, and I would also like to post the original Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and Sanskrit poetry that constantly pops up in the texts. Since Indian and Pakistani readers of English translations tend to be multi-lingual, I realise that there will be an interest in knowing the original texts and songs that are quoted. I would post these in Devanagari, Nastaliq and Romanised transcription, with accompanying translations.”
There are several other recent examples of books that make excellent use of digital augmentation: like the digital edition of Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here, a unique book with a uniquely pleasing iPad version. The graphic novel follows the same living room across the course of millennia: it moves temporally but not spatially. The e-version exploits the animation possibilities of such a structure: a cat walks coolly across eras; different scenes from the same year appear adjacently with a touch and so on.
The only question, it seems, is what readers are ready for right now and what they will be ready for 10, 20, 30 years down the line? Will novels begin with full-throated arias? Will a suicide note be read in Donald Duck or Marlon Brando’s voice, according to your choice? Will we now see chase sequences designed in collaboration with Nick Park? The future is here, fellow readers and writers, and it’s available in All 5 Major Sense-Media.