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Style insists that in a world of electronic messages, methods of writing and editing that take ‘hours or days’ are outdated.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.

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