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Extremely Online and Incredibly Tedious

The internet-whisperer du jour

Brat by Gabriel Smith. Penguin Press, 320 pages. 2024.

There’s a meme I think about often, a dumb joke that originated in a New Yorker cartoon from the nineties and exploded from there. In the original image, a dog sits in front of a desktop computer, a browser window open on his screen. He’s turned his head toward another dog sitting on the ground beside him. The caption elaborates: “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”

This evocation of anonymity, the separation between the public and the private self, feels quaintly old-fashioned in 2024, so eroded is the boundary between our real and digital lives. For years, when the internet was the domain of computer engineers and assorted weirdo thrill seekers, the distinction that this meme alludes to was possible. But no more. There may be fewer dogs on the internet these days, but there are an awful lot of writers. And some of them are very online.

Every few years, the publishing industry designates a crop of young writers as the internet-whisperers du jour, voices of generations that haven’t quite divided, cell-like, from the one previous, developing or else being assigned a purportedly distinct sensibility in the process. Three years ago, we had the dueling “internet novels” that were Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This and Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts; before that, we had the Adderall-inflected prose of Tao Lin and  blogosphere-born essay collections like Emily Gould’s And the Heart Says Whatever. This spring, Gabriel Smith’s Brat arrived on the scene, its galley heralding the “rhythms of the internet” that pulse through its pages. The novel brings a Generation Z spin to modern ennui—and it reads surprisingly similar to the old millennial one.

The problems start when you actually open the book, which reads like a c. 2010 Tumblr page spat up by the Wayback Machine.

Brat, Smith’s debut, follows a young writer named Gabriel as he leaves London to return to his family home following the death of his father. While there, a kind of techno-ghost story unfolds as he peels layers of dead skin from his body, dwells on an ex-girlfriend, spends a lot of mindless time online, reads a mysterious old manuscript of his mother’s (yes, he belongs to a family of writers), finds a strange video tape, and finally, on the last page, begins the novel that we’re holding in our hands. All this has a pleasantly Gothic tone when you glance at a summary, which suggests an interesting contrast between the human and the digital, and the friction that arises when they meet. The problems start when you actually open the book, which reads like a c. 2010 Tumblr page spat up by the Wayback Machine.

One of the most frustrating aspects of Brat is the way in which its stripped-down prose obscures the true strangeness of its imagery, particularly that peeling skin. An early description reads as such: “The doctor was right about the skin on my chest, just to the right of where I assumed my heart was. It looked all weird.” “All weird” is lazy writing, self-conscious in its attempt to pass as colloquial or casual, the everyday language of our texts and posts and conversations and lives. But it comes off as oddly mannered, a posturing that recognizes itself to be a posture and yet does nothing to counteract this impression. The book is rife with this kind of language. It’s a missed opportunity for Smith to pull the novel in an unfamiliar direction, to construct a work as vivid and hallucinatory as that singular image of peeling skin.

And Brat is in on the joke. Too many moments in the novel come off as a self-aware thumbing of the nose—from the casual, childish homophobic insults shared between the narrator and his older brother, to the reproduction in full of a short story by the narrator’s ex-girlfriend about a Russian oligarch titled “Cum Tributo.” None of this is clever or interesting; it’s tedious. And though someone reading this will undoubtedly claim that this is the point—that it’s meant to be, well, bratty—there is a circular logic to that argument that I find depressing. It mistakes provocation as inherently substantive. If there is nothing else that characterizes a certain strain of the contemporary novel, it is a feigned sophistication that shirks the convictions required for a book to endure.

Despite the marketing copy’s fixation on the internet, Brat focuses a great deal on older technology. A VHS tape, a physical book manuscript, and a television script play an even more important role in the story than smartphones and content streams. They are objects that Gabriel finds in his family home when he returns to clean house for a realtor; all three shapeshift, presenting different stories, images, and characters for Gabriel to read or watch each time he returns to them. On the videotape, he views unfamiliar images of his mother: “It was my mother again, the same age, outdoors, sitting on a picnic blanket with a man I did not recognize,” Smith writes. “He looked big and thin and Spanish or South American. My body started to feel bad and full of movement.” Regarding that last line, it is one of three times that it or a variation appears in this book, the first upon staring at a photo of his girlfriend (“I looked again at the photo of my girlfriend. My body felt bad and full of movement.”) and the third, two pages after looking at the tape of his mother following a failed attempt at masturbation, the Freudian circle complete.

But what, exactly, does it mean to feel “bad” in these contexts? It is a vague word, inexact in its application. The character feels bad, notes it, and then moves on; nothing more is ventured. But observing a thing isn’t the same as saying something about it. Though this might sound obvious, one of the pleasures of literature is the way in which it categorizes and dissects our experiences, rendering the murky wordlessness of feeling into a paragraph or turn of phrase that makes sense out of what is so often senseless. And though we have here a book that is conscious of itself as a book, it is often without linguistic precision or pleasure.

The moments of intratextuality—the quotations from the manuscript, titled A Bit of Earth, or the forgotten television script we are told was written by the father—provide an attempt at contrast, however, particularly in their interest in the relationship between life, death, and the new technologies that develop to capture these moments in time. These are ripe ideas: I think of that line in Derrida’s cameo in the 1983 British film Ghost Dance, in which he says, “The modern technology of images enhances the power of ghosts and their ability to haunt us,” a moment the French writer Maël Renouard expanded on in his memoir of the internet, Fragments of an Infinite Memory. Or the Japanese video artist Shigeko Kubota’s 1980 work Video is Ghost of Yourself, its disintegrating tape. But Brat mostly resists the interiority that might make these strange images and scenes from videotapes and print into a coherent metaphor for loss and the injustices of time, the ache that is a child watching their parents age and die. Rather than poignant, they come across as borrowed, sprinkled in without fully coalescing.

Part of the problem stems from how similar these scripts and manuscripts are to the rest of the book. There is again an abiding resistance to specificity—a character in A Bit of Earth is described as having  “sinuses [that] sounded full of something”—but what is that something? To carry off this register, details become monumentally important. Bret Easton Ellis, an early influence on this kind of style, crams his novels with almost too many brand names and club names and names of magazines and drugs, but this cascade of references grounds his early work, capturing their particular place and time, their essential superficiality—Los Angeles in the nineties, New York in the eighties—with an air of authority. But it’s a technique that can easily outwear its welcome, sometimes even in the span of the book in which it’s being used. Ellis’s solution for this is to juxtapose this prose with moments of extreme violence, jarring the reader out of the complacency brought on by the commercial-like onslaught of brand names, but this, too, becomes predictable, losing its power to shock. The dissolute yuppies are always immoral. All that glitters is not gold, etc.

Too often for young writers, this kind of aesthetic flatness becomes essentially a one-trick pony. It’s easy to imitate, which is why it’s popular; all you have to do is listlessly describe a series of actions and throw in a few references to masturbation, drugs, or, ideally, some combination thereof. The books written in this mode tend to blur together. Whole swaths of Brat feel interchangeable with another much-discussed Gen Z debut: Honor Levy’s short story collection My First Book, despite the differing forms, settings, and genders of the various protagonists. There is a parochial quality to many of Levy’s stories; even with settings like Versailles’s Hall of Mirrors, their world feels cramped, the size of the Twitter status update bar, and as self-referential.

Both Smith and Levy have ties to Tyrant Books, the independent press founded by the late Giancarlo DiTrapano and was closely associated with what would come to be termed “alt lit.” The aesthetic flatness Smith and Levy are clearly going for was characteristic of many of the writers associated with the scene, which produced works like Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel (2009), Megan Boyle’s Liveblog (2015), and Marie Calloway’s infamous 2011 short story “Adrien Brody” (published by Lin’s Muumuu House) and subsequent book what purpose did i serve in your life (published in 2013 by Tyrant Books). Returning to some of these works, particularly Calloway’s, I am struck by their sense of stakes. The chat lingo-inflected plainness of Calloway’s prose in “Adrien Brody” subtly undermines the politics at play, the power differential between a twenty-one-year-old woman and the forty-year-old man who sleeps with her. It is unassuming, it is at odds with the maximalism that had been on-trend for English-language literature, and it skewers, very precisely, the tawdriness of the New York publishing circles that it simultaneously namechecks. This is a story that has something to say about the violence that lurks, always, beneath the surface of relationships between heterosexual men and women.

“Internet writing” has become a category broad enough to mean essentially nothing because the internet is a technology in the same way that a book is a technology.

A preoccupation with human dignity and its tarnishing is a surprising thread that runs through many of the alt lit works of the early 2010s. “From reading his articles,” observes the thinly veiled heroine of “Adrien Brody” of the writer who is about to cheat on his age-appropriate girlfriend by sleeping with her, “what I had really admired about his writing was essentially this feeling of how to uphold human dignity and the sacredness of human feeling and connection. And so it seemed unbelievable that he would cheat.” Connection is supposedly easier to come by than ever thanks to what we once optimistically referred to as the world wide web, and yet the internet seems to produce alienation above all else. The spareness of Calloway’s prose, juxtaposed with its dissection of the extremities of human loneliness, ends up echoing the chasm that has opened up between what we ought to do, and what we might claim to do online, versus how we actually act in real life. Brat, despites its focus on its narrator’s point of view, mostly avoids this kind of exposure. What we are left with lacks the risk of its stylistic predecessors.

And without risk there lies danger. We have entered a cultural moment in which it is fashionable to admit to language’s futility. It is a mark of sophistication now to yawn that it’s all rhetoric, and isn’t that enough? Why try to make writing sound interesting, why try to argue something unexpected, when all attempts to mold and shape a language will ultimately fall flat? Bad writing, self-conscious writing, comes out of an essential disillusionment with the one real tool that writers have. It is writing that postures, that is ready to claim, at every criticism, that oh, you just don’t get it. The sarcasm functions as a protective armor, but unlike real irony, no hypocrisies are exposed.

For those who retain a shred of faith in language, who are fascinated by and weary of its implicit dangers—the laws it can enact, the hierarchies embedded even inside its simplest modes of address—books like Brat may be disappointing. But they do point to a larger question that every writer working today has to grapple with, and that is the problem of recording temporality in an increasingly frenzied, tech-mediated age. Even more so than the explosion of mass media and print culture in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the internet today trades in ephemerality. And so how exactly is fiction—a kind of writing that aims at its very core to tamp down and preserve a particular place, a time, a mood—supposed to approach this?

When faced with a variation of this question amid the rapid technological shifts of his own era, E. M. Forster cried out “Only connect!” in the pages of Howards End. A renewed focus on human subjectivity—the ghost in the machine—offered a path forward, and it still does. For all of the namechecks and memes replicated in the first half of Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, the book found its footing in the second half, when the tragedy of a child’s mortality—real life—interrupts the endless scrolling. And then there are the books that have used the development of the internet as a chance to explore the muck of human existence, such as the Ecuadorian writer Monica Ojeda’s novels Jawbone and Nefando, with their repellent explorations of child abuse and the Dark Web. Or the French writer Delphine de Vigan’s Kids Run the Show, on child influencers, that plays with the internet’s favorite genre—true crime.

“Internet writing” has become a category broad enough to mean essentially nothing because the internet is a technology in the same way that a book is a technology. There is an immersive quality to the internet, the Wikipedia rabbit holes and the endless link trees, that the affectless writing that has become the house style of online life fails to capture. We turn the page; we scroll. An endless deluge of information, our existences online are now defined by a complex tangle of memes and references and rhetorical quirks. But it’s in the sorting of the information, the understanding of how this information gets filtered into the very structures of our language, that the art lies.