There’s a special place in the annals of the epistolary novel for books whose epistles lie dormant in the dead-letter office, unanswered. In Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land, Lewis Miner’s updates sent to his high school’s alumni newsletter, complete with grandiloquent descriptions of his masturbation techniques, are deemed unpublishable by its editors; in Letters to Wendy’s, it’s unlikely that Joe Wenderoth’s unhinged and occasionally pornographic prose poems to the fast-food chain—written on “Tell Us What You Think” postcards provided at the restaurant—reach their destination; in Saul Bellow’s Herzog, the eponymous narrator writes his pained missives but never actually sends them. These works share not only a flair for unsavory male characters but also a certain embedded despair. They explore the failure of art as a form of communication, the futility of screaming into the unlistening ether.
Nowadays we have the Internet, where every ranting author has a forum, though not necessarily an audience. #atreefallsinaforest, but no one retweets. The More You Ignore Me, Travis Nichols’s second epistolary novel, takes place entirely in the comments-thread wasteland of a home-recipe website, BrendaCookingFun.com. Like the books by Lipsyte, Wenderoth, and Bellow, it concerns the pathos that comes when male misbehavior goes mostly ignored.
Why BrendaCookingFun.com? It’s simple: Linksys181, as our narrator is known, has been kicked off the comments thread on Charlico.com—a blog devoted to the wedding of Charli and Nico. Linksys181 has come to the “essential culinary site” to whine about his banishment and to find a new audience for his dubious theory that Chris Novtalis, the best man and brother of the groom, Nico, has “coital plans for the bride.”
It’s worth noting that our pseudonymous protagonist has never met anyone in the wedding party, including the engaged couple. Linksys181 discovered the bride-to-be by accident while searching on Google for sexy photos of an unnamed female politician. Charli appears in the background of one such photo, “staring directly into the camera’s lens with a kind of dégagé pout that could not but stir a proper man’s soul.” It helps that she looks uncannily like Rachil (spelling changed for “legal reasons”), a woman our narrator stalked and lost some twenty years earlier. Facebook reveals that even Charli’s “likes” are similar to Rachil’s; both dig Salinger, the Beatles, and Harold and Maude—it must be fate!
Linksys181 and his army of aliases make quick work of the discussion forum on Charlico.com, drowning out the status quo salutations (“Emma-1: The menu looks AMAZING you guys!!!”) with rants about overpopulation, overcopulation (he’s boldly antipenetration), and the corrupt nature of marriage as an institution. The final straw is a speculative short story he posts in which Chris and Nico die a fiery death, leaving Charli to grieve, though “not as much as one might suspect.” Nichols—tongue firmly planted in cheek—is pointing to the way that our cultural rituals have been not only commodified but also blood-let. If “like” buttons and emoticons are the modern weapons of homogenization, then the anything-goes comments section is their antidote, “a shelter from the worldly storm of sorrow and strife, a space where a small group of forward thinkers could discuss the issues without society’s censors concealing them.” Until, of course, the forum moderator bans you from the site.
More than anything, Linksys181’s online life is an escape from his off-line existence in the real world (he calls it “meat space”), where he’s unemployed and eats only food he can cook in his coffeemaker. He still pines for Rachil, who, he believes, misread his intentions all those years ago. The “grand tradition of online democratic society” affords him not only anonymity but also the space to articulate his altruistic intentions, and at least the illusion of an audience.
Despite his linguistic élan—Nichols, the author of two books of poetry, has gifted his narrator with a flair for syllabic tango—Linksys181 himself is something of a cynic about the communicative powers of storytelling. “I know it doesn’t work to write it out,” he explains of his attempts at online self-expression. “The ideas—and the consequences of the ideas!—become vast and, at the same time, dense, like dark ice spreading over the expanse of my soul. And yet I continue to write, to think, to act, and to communicate.” In other words, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
Eventually our narrator despairs of his chosen narrative technique to the point that he really can’t go on. He feels that he’s failing to get his story across, to make himself understood. His only recourse is to switch forms entirely, and the second half of the book is dominated by the text of an autobiographical novel that Linksys181 hopes will better articulate his behavior in the Rachil affair.
The novel within the novel (or is it a novel within a blog comment?)—about an unnamed stalker obsessed with a woman named Rachil—leads us deeper into the Freudian maze of our narrator’s past (surprise: he has mommy issues). The stalker makes audio recordings of Rachil’s sexual encounters, and he advances his creepiness by listening “while watching Joan of Arc, sketching winter trees in my notebook.” Nichols has a knack for these kinds of strangely humanizing details. Nabokov’s Pale Fire is the clear inspiration here, and though one doesn’t finish The More You Ignore Me with the same heart-wrung heaviness, there’s real emotion hidden within the metafictional acrobatics.
If the book has a flaw, it’s that the prose sometimes resembles too closely the discourse it parodies. Linksys181, like real-life comment trolls, can be digressive, redundant, and staid in his self-righteous tunnel vision. This has been the burden of ranting, “wronged” characters such as Pale Fire’s Kinbote and the nameless narrator of Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters. In those cases the burden is eased by the comic escalation of bad behavior paired with the slow revelation of past trauma. Nichols is excellent at the former—Linksys181 continues to surprise with the creativity of his misconduct—but only hints at the latter. This can make it hard for the reader to care about Linksys181 and his complaints. Still, there’s something admirable about the way Nichols allows his character the indignity of his prickly tendencies without validating them via sympathetic flashback. Nichols’s ultimate point seems to be about the unknowability of identity when language is our only option for articulating it. “I felt for years I was doomed to be misunderstood,” says our narrator, “and, the worst tragedy was further writing and ‘expression’ only seemed to make it worse.” All artists feel this way at least some of the time. The More You Ignore Me reminds us that exploring this sense of failure can in itself become the basis for art that is as alive as it is bleak.
Adam Wilson is the author of the novel Flatscreen (Harper Perennial, 2012).