We’re into pondering the future of literature around here. Recent entries include e-book chapter mashups and twit lit and Harvard Press on Scribd. Today’s comes from Nicola Furlong, self-identified shameless self-promoter and Canadian writer of mysteries.
Furlong has produced a multimedia novel entitled Unnatural States. It is certainly multimedia. Whether it is a novel is debatable. More on that later. Navigating the simple site, you are immediately confronted with a “Trailer / Intro”, which features an buzzcut older woman in sunglasses performing YouTube-esque antics in lieu of of a book jacket. It had me clicking desperately for the next page. Readers, it went downhill from there.
Unnatural States is a linear progression of linked webpages filled with text, pictures, sound effects and more video clips. These are all meant to serve as the stuff of this “novel,” which apparently is a mystery about some latter-day John the Apostle and a terrier-like reporter named Virginia hot on his trail. Or something. It was hard to tell, what with all the noise and bad sentences.
If it’s possible for a website to be claustrophobic, this one is. When I’m reading, I like to know where I’m going. How many pages the books has (or dots at the bottom of the screen, in the case of the Kindle), how far along I am, what chapter I’m on, and so forth. Unnatural States gives you none of these. You don’t how far you’ve come, or how far you’ve got to go. There are no chapters. No organization at all that I could detect, other than the arrows at the bottom of your screen. If you want to understand what’s going on, you can’t skip the video clips. You have to watch them. It’s like taking orders from the author. It’s annoying as hell.
I mean, I like movies and video as much as anyone. But I watch them as video. Clips as stand-ins for the written word are horribly inefficient. They just take so long. What would constitute a few paragraphs of dialogue takes three minutes of video. It’s the same reason I prefer to get my news off the web rather than TV: in the time it takes a talking head to get to the gist, I can have read a whole page of analysis, and be on to the next thing, rather than passively waiting for the talking head to tell me what’s next.
Now, a novel just is a passive experience. Which is why I can’t stand to read bad ones. If I’m going to hand my conscious working mind over to a writer, he / she better do good things with it. Inserting video clips as stand-ins for words just doesn’t cut it. I don’t pick up a novel to be a part-time watcher. I pick it up to be a reader.
Normally I’m all for innovation. But this is the kind of thing that’s going to make a raging literary reactionary out of me. There have to be some parameters. A novel can be spoken, a novel can be filmed. But, as yet, a novel cannot be turned into a multimedia showcase. Not without ceasing to become a novel and becoming something else. A dreary mess, in this case.
Take the video sequences, for instance. Yes, they are painfully amateur productions. But that’s not the problem. Slick scenes directed by Quentin Tarantino would not improve the situation. That’s because video clips are not writing; they are fundamentally something else. This is the reason you don’t attend a movie screening of your favorite novel book in hand, nor read a book with a DVD remote, watching the scenes as you read them. I suppose it’s possible to imagine a future when the multitasking hordes both read and watch video at the same time, but that won’t be reading (or watching, for that matter). It will be something else. For now the barrier between the two is impermeable. Unnatural States is a demonstration of why. If this is the future of the novel, the novel is finished.
Is it fair to review a “novel” that I haven’t actually finished? Normally I’d say no. But in this case I think it is justified. I couldn’t possibly drudge through to end of this exercise in digital tedium. Furlong has managed to construct a galactic failure of tinny sound effects, 80s-arcade music, painfully turgid video scenes, and woefully uninteresting writing. An actual novel, the kind that consists of mere words, is incapable of such a massive falling down. So I guess this makes Furlong something of an innovator, after all.
Judge for yourself here: Unnatural States, by Nicola Furlong
UPDATE: Normally I contact the author of a book or piece I review, and invite them to comment. But I haven’t been able to locate Furlong’s contact information. If anybody has it, please feel free to forward it to me.
Also posted at TeleRead.