Earlier this week, I took my family to get a seasonal flu vaccine. We waited in a line that extended to the sidewalk with hundreds of others, eyeing every cough and sneeze and sniffle with suspicion. This in my unassuming hometown (pop. 14000), where everyone knows everyone. Imagine such a scene in, say, New York.
In American Fever: A Tale of Romance and Pestilence, Peter Christian Hall does, and doesn’t stop there. The story of a flu-obsessed blogger who predicts a flu pandemic and then records its ravages, Hall taps into a deep literary vein of paranoia. Having previously ventured into the epidemic-as-apocalypse genre myself, my expectations were high. True to form, this novel-as-blog soon had me wiping down every surface in reach with disinfectant.
Hall grapples with a thorny problem: how to create a live novel. The “hypernovels” of the 90s were dismal failures, I’m not sold on e-book chapter mashups, and Vooks manage to be both unreadable and unwatchable. American Fever is by far the best stab at the future of the novel I’ve seen. It also makes clear that live novels (livels?) have a ways to go. Someday when we’re reminiscing fondly on the dawn of e-books, American Fever may very well occupy pride of place among the original innovators. Its sophisticated approach, however, is not is not always backed by prose equal to its packaging.
American Fever’s hero is a blogger-turned-“flugitive.” Observing the pandemic’s progression from his Brooklyn apartment with growing disbelief and anger as the sickness cuts down friends and strangers alike, he caustically comments:
“All I ever do is google. What else is there to do … pray?”
A self-taught influenza expert, the Ayn Rand-loving blogger operates a “personal protection” business out of his apartment, selling masks and gloves and the like. Gradually he becomes something of an online hero, calling out an increasingly totalitarian American government for its misdeeds. Arrested and tortured on trumped-up charges, he flees the country with his socialist girlfriend and fellow flu survivor, but not before watching his beloved metropolis descend into barbarity.
American Fever is the first novel I’m aware of that is written entirely in a blogged epistolary style, complete with rabbit-hole references, pop culture innuendo and cutting sarcasm:
“For the sake of innocent readers I’ve acquired, I’ll explain that I don’t want to have to monitor the site for abuse. Nor will I host debates about what politician would make a worse president, or which movie star or pop singer is doing more to fight bird flu (“I feel stupid and contagious/here we are now/ entertain us”).”
The epistolary style has a built-in weakness: nothing can be experienced directly by the characters, only described afterwards. It’s a tough hurdle to leap, and Hall doesn’t always clear it. The very structure of the book keeps us out of the heat of the action: the main character always has to return to his laptop. So we get secondhand reports, emotional recountings, snatches of scenes.
“Disorder has turned universal. Armed hospital invasions are common in blue states, red states, border states, states of anxiety, hopeless states. Is the State itself in danger?”
A single taut, well-written description of an armed hospital invasion would suffice for any number of notifications of such. Replete with Googled Wikipedic tidbits, the chatty tone and truncated sentences take American Fever dangerously close to pedestrian blog territory:
“So far my ‘hood merely looks like a police state war zone. We all still love one another. I didn’t feel afraid when I went out. The worst thing that happened was that I seem to have exacerbated my back injury climbing over debris on B. It hurts like heck. No, worse: It feels unprintable.
The East Village can survive this. It survived crack and yuppies.”
The end of American civilization witnessed via the witticisms of your neighborhood blogspotter: it rings a little hollow. I’m not sure this is the best vessel for a novel. I’m not saying it isn’t, either. But the net effect is, when Hall does reach for more sophisticated language, he strikes a tinny note:
“Time melds itself like freshly bruised enamel paint, smoothes my days. I could run down the street naked and no one would remember, so long as I was back in my perch tomorrow.”
Nonetheless, American Fever gives us some tantalizing hints as to what a blogged novel could be, and to my mind represents a real advance in e-lit. The blog is chock full of lit savvy, which serves to further blur fiction and reality with links to Hall’s flu blog on the Huffington Post. He also sells personal protection gear and “Cultural Merchandise.” Add in the fact that the book has an RSS feed to subscribe to, and what you have is a novel direction for the novel.
Books are meant to be finished, permanent projects; American Fever bristles with links (though these thin out as the plot progresses). How to keep the links current, and relevant? Today’s fascinating article on Avian Influenza Age Distribution is tomorrow’s 404 Error. Should the effort even be made? I mean, I can imagine that in the near future aggregator bots will automatically update e-book links. (Which brings up another question: can you really be said to “own” an e-book if its links are constantly changing?) But if a book relies on constant link updates, or links at all, is it a book? And if not, what is it? American Fever doesn’t answer these questions. But it certainly puts them out there in a fascinating way.
For now, American Fever is live online. As of this writing, it’s on Day 156, of 220. I do wonder why you can only subscribe to the novel in-progress. Why not adopt an asynchronous approach, as in DailyLit? How many readers are likely to read 156 blog entries to catch up with the story? Not this one—I read American Fever on my Kindle via a PDF advance copy. (Which, in keeping with the FTC’s new book-reviewing guidelines, I hereby note is extant in my email, two computers, and my Kindle, so it is thereby safe to say I intend to keep it.)
All gripes aside, you’re missing something if you miss American Fever. Start your reading here.
American Fever will be complete by December 2009. The print / e-book release date is as yet undetermined, but the blog project will remain online indefinitely.
This post originally appeared at TeleRead.