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If Big Brother had a blog, he would be its webmaster

April 18, 2006|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

Lightning struck near the tiny valley town of Livingston, Mont., the other day, frying a radio tower and, for a few long hours, plunging some of its 7,000 residents into an Internet-less world. "I wasn't above having thoughts of God's wrath," says Walter Kirn, one of those residents, a novelist and critic who lives by himself on 500 acres of hay and roving herds of antelope. The laptop sitting on his kitchen table rendered useless, Kirn tried typing into his cellphone, then drove through town, trolling for anybody with an unbroken connection. A segment of his newest novel was set to be published in a matter of hours, and it wasn't even written.

Kirn, given his pastoral surroundings, might seem an unlikely candidate to be writing an "online novel." But the author of "Thumbsucker" and "Mission to America" is hardly a transcendentalist loner, either -- he's well-connected in New York publishing circles and isn't averse to attention, having written, for instance, an article for GQ about his experimentation with Ritalin. When the editor of the online magazine Slate approached Kirn last December and asked if he'd be willing to write a novel, posting chapters to Slate as he went, Kirn says he warily agreed.

"I was both enthusiastic and doubtful," he says. "The old school part of me was brainwashed into thinking that writing on the Internet was a form of slumming or self-cheapening, kind of like publishing your own book at Kinko's." On the other hand, the editor assigned to the project was Meghan O'Rourke, formerly a fiction editor at the New Yorker and hardly an illiterate Web nerd.

The result is "The Unbinding," a serialized Web novel and a rumination on technology today, its first segment posted at Slate.com in March with postings continuing twice weekly through June. Kirn depicts technology as a looming Orwellian force, spying on the citizenry, turning our insides outward; yet Big Brother is not an ominous other but we, the people: We've internalized the totalitarian apparatus, and thus technology becomes at once our attempt at salvation, connection, love, meaning, and the vehicle of our own oppression. The loss of privacy makes for comedy, at first, and then for a sense of foreboding as trampled boundaries refuse to reappear.

In short: Everybody's spying on everybody (including themselves). At the center of it all is Kent, who works for the omnipresent corporation AidSat, which monitors millions of sensor-transmitters worn by its subscribers. Lost? Having chest pains? Can't remember your brother-in-law's boss' birthday? Press a button on your AidSat enabled bracelet or earring and you'll reach an operator like Kent who tracks you with satellites, monitors your vital signs and provides whatever help or information you so desire. Sometimes, operators track you unbidden.

Meet Sabrina, Kent's comely, single neighbor -- and an AidSat subscriber. Kent's interested, Kent has access and Kent can't resist doing a little background research. But Sabrina notices being noticed and calls upon her own connections with their own computers. We watch Sabrina watch Kent watch Sabrina; we, the readers, are implicated in the watching. The story unfolds through "found documents," such as Kent's blog-like online diary. "I decided this month to write it all down," Kent explains. "Everything, my morning and my nights, and to file it for perpetual safekeeping in the great electronic library of lives. I'm an interesting person, I've come to see. We all are. We don't deserve to disappear."

Kirn watches, also, through the Internet, sitting up nights at the kitchen table at his farm, wearing boxers, an owl hooting in the blackness beyond. He watches the world, watches us. He follows the political furor surrounding the National Security Agency wiretapping controversy, the parental furor arising from teens baring their souls (and other things) on social networking sites and video repositories such as Youtube.com. News of our world filters into the world of "The Unbinding," which filters back into our world -- say, this article -- which filters back into "The Unbinding." The first mainstream media review of this novel-in-progress, in the Boston Globe, appeared as a link in a following chapter. An AidSat operator tracked it down; apparently, their computer systems index multiple worlds.

Want to appear in a Walter Kirn novel? Now's your chance. Quick, do something crazy, and do it publicly. The clock's ticking; "The Unbinding" won't be evolving forever, it's set to be published as a book -- to be bound -- after its run at Slate. Kirn is considering selling the print rights on EBay.

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