A Little Electronic Dawn

James Francken

  • The Reasons I Won't Be Coming by Elliot Perlman
    Faber, 314 pp, £9.99, July 2000, ISBN 0 571 19699 3
  • Turn of the Century by Kurt Anderson
    Headline, 819 pp, £7.99, February 2000, ISBN 0 7472 6800 2
  • Slab Rat by Ted Heller
    Abacus, 332 pp, £10.99, March 2000, ISBN 0 349 11264 9

William Strunk was a standard-bearer for the use of bold, brief English. In The Elements of Style, first published in 1918, the Cornell professor set out his rules of usage and principles of composition in the form of direct commands – ‘Sergeant Strunk snapping orders to his platoon’. ‘Omit needless words.’ ‘Do not affect a breezy manner.’ But ‘times change, and so do written communications’; a new style handbook has been published that intends to retire Strunk from service. The Elements of E-mail Style insists that in a world of electronic messages, methods of writing and editing that take ‘hours or days’ are outdated. An e-mail should have an impromptu feel and the handbook suggests how to create this effect: sentences can be truncated, for example, and capital letters ignored. A reply to an e-mail can arrive within minutes, so the tone of a message should be conversational: in an informal e-mail, a stiff greeting or stilted closing is out of place. The Elements of E-mail Style gives the reader advice on good ‘netiquette’ – the conventions for messages sent via the Internet – and explains how to have better high-tech chit-chat.

The handbook warns: ‘Never give your e-mail user name and password to someone else.’ But a careless business consultant breaks this rule in ‘Your Niece’s Speech Night’, the strong opening story in Elliot Perlman’s uneven first collection; she gives her password to the narrator, who is ‘computer illiterate’, when she is teaching him how to use e-mail. The narrator (who isn’t named) works for a faceless corporation – ‘these days I don’t even know if I’m meant to be in Sales or in Marketing’ – and has lost all interest in his job. With no prospect of a pay rise or a promotion, he settles for playing the office joker, coining cute phrases for the benefit of his workmates. Why had he joined the firm? ‘They gave good letter-head.’ Why does he take no part in meetings? ‘They call this the bored room.’ He falls for the consultant and they begin an affair; but it is a let-down when she starts to creep to Lloyd Walker, his hideous boss, suggesting a new corporate strategy at a breakfast meeting. And there is a twist in the story when the narrator works late at the office and checks his e-mail: ‘For all my newfound computer skills, formatting, scrolling and saving, I can never remember my password or whether it is mine or yours ... My first instinct is to use yours ... so that it was not my e-mail I was receiving but yours.’ Snooping in the consultant’s e-mail in-tray, he discovers a message from Walker containing the details of her strategy ‘there on the screen, word for word as you had expressed it at the meeting’. He checks the date and sees that the message was sent before the meeting took place: Walker was helping her to get ahead and it is only the telltale e-mail that reveals the secret of their mild complicity.

Perlman’s intimacy with obsession and failure is absorbing; he is good at describing the fiercely guarded fears and insecurities of modern working life. His novel, Three Dollars (1998), is a professional account of the dangers of letting a career come first: Eddie Harnovey, the narrator, is in two minds about a report he must write for his boss. He is a chemical engineer in a large organisation and has been asked to approve a new mine in South-East Australia. Eddie is certain that the development will cause lead pollution; he also knows that if he fails to make up false results he will lose his job and struggle to support his wife and daughter.

When his results make clear the likelihood of environmental damage, he decides he must tell the truth: hushing up his findings for the sake of his career would be a painful trade-off. But the decision soon seems rash; holding onto his job becomes essential when his wife starts to dwell more and more on the memory of her father’s suicide and feels unable to cope with a job (her father was a Czech Jew who had seen his family taken away by the Nazis). Eddie refuses to fall in with her dark mood and writes his report with ‘Capraesque enthusiasm’; and as with Capra, the story broods – sometimes mawkishly – on the fate of the little man trying to buck the system. By the end of the novel, Eddie is out of work, behind on the mortgage and down to his last three dollars. He walks past the Salvation Army hostel and appreciates the good fortune in uncertain times of having a family – ‘I looked inside and understood where the real growth in the country was’ – and the novel dissolves to a scene of quiet domesticity: ‘We sat together watching television, the three of us in the dark, none of us saying anything ... I could see the first tentative rays of light through a gap in the curtains.’

There is too much on show in Three Dollars, too many details self-consciously disclosed. And in The Reasons I Won’t Be Coming, important scenes are frequently written in awkward, clotted prose. ‘We were at each other’s throats,’ says a young Jewish woman in one of the stories, an assistant working in a Moscow bookshop whose attempts to emigrate to Australia have led to family break-down: ‘The walls moved closer in to each other and every shout set off in each of us an unscheduled train of thought to the edge of some or other precipice.’ Perlman is fond of extended metaphors. In ‘Spitalnic’s Last Year’, for example, a student’s hopes are disappointed: ‘It was a love he knew she did not return. It was born out of his misery and suckled on his loneliness. He felt it could not be aborted without losing himself as well.’ In ‘The Hong Kong Fir Doctrine’, the narrator’s affair with a married woman ends when she gets pregnant and returns to her husband: ‘As the father of your children he must always have top billing in your dramatis personae whereas I can be killed off in an instant. A warrant for my execution was drafted at the moment of this conception.’ Short stories rely on parsimony and Perlman’s overwrought sentences don’t often work.

The prose is better when he writes with more detachment. ‘In the Time of the Dinosaur’ offers a frosty, child’s-eye view of a superannuated father. Lucas wants to be a dinosaur scientist when he is older and is pleased to get his dad’s approval: ‘he said it beat making shoes in a shoe factory, which is what he did.’ When Lucas has to come up with a project for school, he is determined to upstage his best friend, Bill Economou. But the boy’s plan to build a dinosaur out of shoeboxes (‘dad said he would bring some shoeboxes and cardboard off-cuts for me from work’) comes unstuck when his father loses his job. Lucas recounts the failure of his makeshift model without making a meal of it.

I came to school with my project but it was different now. I had two sheets of paper with writing about dinosaurs from the books and a big model of a megalosaurus, a two-legged meat-eater ... I had taken two wire coat hangers and threaded them through 17 beer cans Dad had. They were empty so I didn’t even ask for them ... Bill Economou loved it. Mrs Nesbitt was angry.

Perlman’s characters have problems that are difficult to unsnarl and they blunder from one situation to the next without ever finding a way out. In the title story of this collection, a middle-aged civil servant gives a gruff account of the collapse of his marriage. He guesses at what could have caused his wife’s unhappiness – ‘I don’t think Maggie has been enjoying her work recently’ – and refuses to accept that she has left for good: ‘Maggie’s away ... She said she just needs some space. That’s all she really needs at the moment.’ Before she leaves, Maggie asks her husband to reply to an invitation to their friends’ wedding anniversary: ‘I’d like you to write to them telling them we won’t be coming.’ But what should he write? He doesn’t want to have to sit down and think about what went wrong: ‘I don’t write many letters. Never did.’ Perlman is careful not to throw any light on this enigmatic story: the reasons for their separation are never revealed and it is unclear whether the letter will ever be sent.

The errant letter is an old plot device. Pamela complains about the important letter to her mother that is stolen; Tom Jones has to leave home because the letter that contains the secret of his birth is misdirected; Tess writes a letter of confession to Angel Clare, but it slips beneath the carpet and is never delivered. Letters have been an uncertain way to communicate in fiction. But the e-mails that have appeared in recent novels are no more reliable: Emily Piper, the skittish heroine of Sylvia Brownrigg’s The Metaphysical Touch, worries that sending a message to an e-mail address – an unknown place with no street name or number – is as chancy as relying on ‘pieces of paper scrolled in a bottle’ and tossed in the surf. When she leaves university, her technically-minded friends buy her a modem, hoping that she’ll keep in touch; she sends e-mails to a few of them, and tries to make new friends through the computer, but their messages tend to be flip and seem pointless: ‘all those insensitive people, chattering on, winking their too cute emoticons :-)’. (Emoticons are a new form of punctuation used at the end of an e-mail paragraph, a shorthand to indicate emotion. Looked at side-on, the different punctuation marks form facial expressions that show happiness, as in Emily’s example; sadness –:’-( ; or shock – 8-0). Emily finds e-mail an impersonal medium until she strikes up an unlikely ‘e-pistolary friendship’ with JD, a computer engineer who has lost his job. Messages go to and fro, but JD becomes increasingly glum and withdrawn. Emily wants to help him; she sends a message suggesting that they meet face-to-face, only for JD to reply that ‘it may be time for me to unplug for a while.’ Her final e-mail comes back to her unread (‘I can drop the idea of meeting you; really, consider it dropped’), with the sour warning that their exchange has been interrupted: ‘BAD ADDRESS FILE. MESSAGE RETURNED’.

Clarissa keeps the letters that are sent to her by Lovelace, but she must also make copies of the letters she has sent to him: they are all put in the private drawer of her escritoire, where her awful mother can inspect them. Modern software makes it easier to keep track of old correspondence: Emily saves all the e-mails she has sent and received in ‘the invisible bank’ of her computer. And a computer’s memory provides one of the focal points in Kurt Andersen’s novel, Turn of the Century, a fat compendium of contemporary attitudes to technology. The central character in the novel is George Mactier, a well-off, middle-aged New Yorker who is set apart from the ordinary difficulties of the city: ‘the rich get richer; the bleak get bleaker.’ His wife, Lizzie, is about to make a killing; Microsoft wants to pay her eight million dollars for a stake in her computer company. Her business know-how has already changed their family life. The day begins when she turns on the computer – ‘the musical chord that Macs play as they boot up pleases her, as always, like a little electronic dawn’ – and mealtimes are organised by e-mail: ‘it’s century 21’ after all. From the computer in the kitchen Lizzie sends a message to her son upstairs: ‘ “Hi. Dinner in 20 minutes when Daddy gets home.” Max replies instantly. “I ate with Sarah and Penelope already. Bye.” ’

There is something eerie about the joke and Andersen’s humour is often dark; his characters can seem uncomfortable not only with the shape of things to come, but with a future that arrived too soon. ‘Do other people get real letters?’ Lizzie wonders, because the letters that are sent to her are rarely personal: ‘Nowadays even thank-you notes and Christmas cards have addresses laser-printed on an adhesive label.’ E-mail is used for everything – on business in Seattle, Lizzie has ‘heard people call e-mail “mail” since, I don’t know, 1997’ – and George is sure that the prefix will soon have the antique charm of old argot: ‘I remember as a little kid ... noticing one day that everybody had stopped saying transistor radio.’ George is someone who might still talk about a micro-computer, and his outlook is at odds with all these changes in his world.

Some of the changes are more significant than others. In Philip Roth’s novel Sabbath’s Theatre, the ageing, suicidal Mickey Sabbath is saved by the mechanical marvels of another generation. He finds a box marked ‘Morty’s Things’ in an unopened drawer – the box holds his brother’s possessions, returned to the family after Morty, an officer in the Air Force, died in the Second World War, almost fifty years before. Sabbath is nettled because he can’t listen to Morty’s ‘letter-on-record’ any more; the ‘voice-o-graph’ which contains his brother’s recording is obsolete. He can, however, still read Morty’s replies to their parents’ ‘v-mail’. (Preprinted forms carrying a ‘V’ for victory were introduced by American Forces in 1942; the v-mail was completed like a conventional letter, put onto microfilm and re-enlarged and printed only at the receiving end, saving space and weight on air transports.)

The v-mails change Sabbath’s mind, at least for a time: ‘How could he kill himself now that he had Morty’s things? Something always came along to make you keep living, goddamnit!’ And in Turn of the Century, George’s marriage gains a lease of life because of an e-mail correspondence. When Lizzie’s computer company boomed, the couple became distant; George chalked up their difficulties to her job, and convinced himself that she was nursing the secret of an office affair. But they separate and he slides into a depression; reluctantly, he agrees to a session with a therapist, Warren, whose wife Pollyanna happens to be one of Lizzie’s close friends. George sits tight-lipped in the chair, certain that therapy is a waste of his time. But Warren walks him out of the office and down the corridor to the empty neighbouring room – Pollyanna’s office – opens up his wife’s e-mail in-tray and leaves George to have a look: ‘He reads for half an hour, and continues reading. There are e-mails, dozens of them, short and long, sent by Lizzie to Pollyanna beginning last spring.’ By the time Warren returns, George realises that he’s been a fool: Lizzie hadn’t been seeing anyone else and had been concerned about the ‘mental health of ... poor George’. The therapist is aware that the session reached a ‘whole new level of ethical dubiousness’, but feels himself justified: ‘ “Well, you’re cured.” He looks at his big digital watch. “And your 50 minutes are up.” ’

If there is something shadowy about the information age, it is the sense that computers could become substitutes for human interaction, that machines might cheat people out of relationships with one another. But e-mail makes small talk easier: Ted Heller’s entertaining novel, Slab Rat, shows that all those threadbare jokes and messages that circulate from one person to another with no obvious origin are sent by e-mail because it is the perfect way to spread gossip in the office. Zachary Post works as an associate editor at It magazine, a shallow glossy where he gets the chance to squeeze in the occasional article between the ‘two-and-a-half pounds of ads’: ‘It’s the kind of article that you read the first two pages of, then when it says continued on page 181 you don’t turn to page 181. And if by chance you do hit page 181, you still don’t read the rest of it.’ He has a small office (‘the size of a very large closet’) in one of New York’s skyscrapers, or ‘slabs’, and spends his day sending acid e-mails to his other chuntering colleagues; when their boss – Gaston Moreau, the ‘Magazine Maestro’ – dies, they cope with the loss by sending one another ‘imaginary headlines via e-mail’: ‘Gaston Runs Out of Gas’; ‘Gaston Has Passed On’; ‘Moreau just Ain’t No Mo’.’ There is a seamy side to the Net that the novel explores: the magazine’s staff can do as they please in cyberspace, a menacing place like Swift’s land of the Yahoos. People will write things in an e-mail that they would never dare say in a letter or on the phone – one explanation for the hefty disclaimer often footnoted in a corporate message. Only in a movie like You’ve Got Mail could Meg Ryan’s sunny character write with any confidence: ‘the odd thing about this form of communication is that you’re more likely to talk about nothing than something, but I just want to say that all this nothing has meant more to me than so many somethings.’ The nothings that make up most e-mails are not all that sweet; in Patrick Marber’s play Closer there is a silent scene in which the dialogue appears on a screen suspended above the stage and two actors sit typing beneath. When Larry sends an electronic message for the first time (‘Nice 2 meet U’) he is surprised to be answered with a swift proposition – he replies: ‘Youre v.forward’ – that holds a promise of ‘paradise’.

The e-mails that George stumbled on in Turn of the Century unlocked the novel’s secret; in Slab Rat, false messages ensure that the mystery can never be solved: Zachary Post is suspected of murder, but an e-mail puts him in the clear. Post is angry when Mark Larkin, the new boy in the office, is promoted ahead of him; Larkin becomes an editor and is ruthless with Post’s copy, filling it with ‘second-tier magazine-speak words’: ‘Grand Guignol’, ‘cause célèbre’, ‘roué’, ‘moue’ and ‘louche’. Post decides to have his revenge: ‘I would pay someone to pick off the little troublesome dot that was Mark Larkin.’ But Willie, the magazine’s other associate editor, will do it for free. Larkin has made his job unbearable and with no other opportunities – ‘Who else will have me? ... McDonald’s? Starbucks? Kinko’s?’ – Willie feels that killing him is his only option. Post organises the murder and Willie carries it out. To cover himself, Post had gone into Larkin’s office while he was out and sent an e-mail to his own computer: ‘Post: Do you still have any of those painkillers? I have an absolutely throbbing headache. Thnx. Larkin’. Post then went back to his own desk and sent a reply: ‘I have tons of them and don’t really need them. They’re yours.’ He finished the forged correspondence from Larkin’s computer: ‘Post: I appreciate it, really. The more the merrier. Absolutely throbbing.’ Larkin is found dead in his apartment a few days later. He had taken, or been made to take, an overdose of painkillers. At first there is a suspicion of foul play; but the police find the e-mails in the memory of Larkin’s computer and assume that he caused his own death. Post has got Larkin’s job as an editor by the end of Heller’s sharp, intricate novel. The wicked upshot sees him get a bigger office with a better view.