Digital Epistolatory Novel (DEN), by Eric Brown
reviewed by Edward Picot
For a work of hyperliterature, Intimacies was heavily publicised and widely written-about when it first came out at the beginning of 2004. Articles about it appeared in the New York Times and (in the UK) the Guardian. According to Eric Brown it was downloaded about 5,000 times in its first four months online, and the figure is now up to about 8,000. Brown admits that 99% of this activity consisted of free downloads, rather than purchases of the CD version: but the fact remains that his first digital novel has attracted a good deal of attention, even if it hasn't made a good deal of money. So what, if anything, is the fuss all about?
Intimacies is a short novel composed almost entirely of emails. As such, of course, it is a modern contribution to a well-established literary genre, namely the "epistolatory novel" or novel of letters, which first came to prominence (in England at least) with the publication of Samuel Richardson's Pamela in 1740. Eric Brown, the author of Intimacies, used to be a professor of English, and is therefore well aware of the literary tradition to which his work belongs: he acknowledges that it was partially inspired by Pamela, and refers to it as a "digital epistolatory novel", or DEN.
A comparison between Intimacies and Pamela, however, throws up at least as many differences as similarities. Richardson's book is about a beautiful but virtuous servant-girl whose mistress dies, with the result that she finds herself in the employment of the old lady's son, Mr B, a sexually predatory young nobleman who almost immediately sets about trying to seduce her. When his first advances are repulsed, he launches a campaign of intimidation and emotional blackmail, combined on occasions with full-on sexual assault; but, as the novel's subtitle, "Virtue Rewarded", implies, Pamela manages not only to resist him but to reform his moral character, with such good effect that by the end of the book she has forgiven him, married him, won over his resentful sister and adopted his illegitimate daughter.
Despite this happy ending, the relationship between the two main characters in Pamela is fraught with difficulties by its very nature: he is a nobleman and she is a serving-girl; society implicitly forbids their marriage, yet Christian morality forbids a sexual relationship on any other terms; Mr B is violently attracted to Pamela, and she more demurely attracted to him, yet she dare not encourage his advances, and at the same time she is placed in a very tricky situation by her dependence on him as a lowly serving-maid in his household. It is impossible for the course of true love to run smoothly under these circumstances, and the very knottiness of the situation is what supplies both the dramatic tension and the plot of Richardson's novel.
The heroin of Intimacies is called Pam, and like her namesake she undergoes and survives a sexual assault - but there are no equivalent social or moral difficulties in the relationship between Eric Brown's two main characters, Pam and Braz, and for that reason he is forced to look elsewhere for tension and plot-development. The hero and heroin become acquainted when Pam, borrowing a colleague's computer, accidentally sends an email to Braz (one of her colleague's contacts). Braz responds to explain her mistake, and the two of them quickly strike up an online relationship characterised on both sides by teasing jokes, impulsive self-revelation and shy hesitancy. Eventually, after a certain amount of dithering, they agree to meet - but just as their relationship seems ready to transfer smoothly from online to the "real world", Pamela is sexually assaulted, apparently by Braz. The story thus becomes a crime mystery of the "wrong man" variety. Did Braz really commit the assault? As readers we have already made an emotional investment in him by this time, so we are strongly inclined to think he must be innocent - but if he didn't do it, who did?
What the two novels do have in common, of course, is the fact that they are both are constructed from the written messages exchanged by their characters. This may seem too obvious to mention, but what it implies is that both are built on a violation of privacy; they both grant their readers access to other people's mail; and this means in turn that neither narrative can escape the implication of voyeurism. In the end, interestingly, they both deal with this problem in the same way, by foregrounding both the voyeuristic theme and the writing process itself, and making them central to the plot.
In Richardson's novel, although Pamela, the main narrator, remains a model of virtue throughout, and shows no sign of encouraging or enjoying her employer's advances until they have been legitimised by his moral conversion, the story itself appears less strictly moralistic, and in fact holds our attention, up until about the halfway mark, by offering us a peepshow view of a series of risque and titillating situations. In one scene, for example, Mr B hides in a closet in Pamela's bedchamber and spies on her as she undresses for bed. As we read this scene we become implicated in his voyeurism, waiting for some erotic detail to be revealed, or for a sexual encounter to ensue. Later in the novel Mr B uses various subterfuges to isolate Pamela and prevent her from sending her letters. She continues to keep a written account of her experiences in the form of a journal, the pages of which she conceals by stitching them into her undergarments. Her secret writings thus become associated with the secrets of her sexuality. When Mr B finds out about the journal he demands to be allowed to read it, and guessing where Pamela has hidden the pages he threatens to strip search her, threatening her with two kinds of violation at once. She yields up the journal voluntarily, however, and when he reads it it precipitates his moral conversion, making him realise that there is far more to Pamela than the attractive exterior which has entranced him up until now. Pamela's private writings thus become central to the plot, and the activity of prying into those secret writings - which is what we are doing when we read the novel, of course - becomes central too. It could be argued that Richardson is asking us as readers to go through the same change of heart as Mr B, moving from the voyeuristic search for titillation to a more mature appreciation of Pamela's inner virtues.
In Intimacies, it turns out that Pam's emails, which she imagined were private, have all been intercepted and read by other people. Again this means that the activity of email correspondence - on which the whole novel is built - becomes central to the plot; and again the voyeurism of those who read Pam's mail is shared by us, the readers, because of course we are doing the same thing. Furthermore the violation of her secret thoughts which takes place when other people read what she has written is closely linked through the plot of the novel to the physical and sexual violation which takes place when she is assaulted. In this way the novel, like Pamela, is self-referencing: it calls attention to its own artifice, its own structure and its own method of composition.
Pam's equivalent to Pamela's moral and sexual virtue is a sense of prudence in her dealings with Braz online. Both narratives deal with the woman-in-jeopardy theme, and therefore both acknowledge that women are usually much more vulnerable than men in their dealings with members of the opposite sex. But in Intimacies, this sense of vulnerability is related more directly to the novel's epistolatory form, because Pam has specific doubts about getting involved with a man via emails. Whereas Pamela recognises that the differences of social degree between herself and her employer make it almost impossible for his sexual advances to take an honourable form, Pam's caution is derived from an awareness that people can easily assume false identities online, and that unscrupulous men can use this as a way of ensnaring credulous females. As a matter of fact she assumes something of a false identity herself in the early stages of the story, pretending to be 52 when she is really 25, as a way of testing Braz's interest in her. Later on, her email relationship with Braz moves to a new level when he starts talking to her via her Instant Messenger. Her reaction is to feel threatened:
...You scared the heart out of me when the PC gonged and there you were talking to me. I don't like IM because it feels as if you can see me... This is creepy... You're sure you can't get inside my computer and infect it with a virus or something?
When she is assaulted in spite of these precautions, she blames herself - "I feel like such a fool" - but she also blames the technology - "And it seems strange to write email, when I thought I'd never touch the stuff again". As it turns out, all her misgivings about online technology are justified, and her privacy is indeed being invaded via the internet, but not in the way that she thinks.
If all of this makes Intimacies sound rather intellectual and difficult, then it should be emphasised that in fact it is an extremely approachable piece of work. Unlike Pamela it can be read comfortably in the space of a single afternoon; and once you make a start on it you feel strongly inclined to keep going all the way to the end, because it has a genuine page-turning quality. This is particularly true after the assault on Pam has taken place, when you find yourself really wanting to know who was the perpetrator (and hoping it wasn't Braz). The investigation develops rapidly enough to grip your attention, and there are twists to it which leave you feeling quite mystified. When the perpetrator is finally unmasked, the solution is gratifyingly unexpected, but it also dovetails neatly with what we have already been told.
As befits a new media work, the on-screen presentation of Intimacies is essential to its impact as a piece of digital literature. In order to read it you have to download and install the DEN software package, which has been designed to display not only this particular DEN but any other novels that happen to be written in the DEN format. Apparently more are planned, and Eric Brown is also planning to market a DEN authoring tool, called WriterWare, for about $150 a copy, thus allowing other writers to create new DENs without any particular new media skills. It is here, one suspects, rather than through sales of Intimacies itself, that he is hoping to make a significant profit. The marketing of hypertext authoring software has been tried before, of course - notably by the Eastgate Corporation, which for some years has been selling the Storyspace authoring system alongside Storyspace-style literary hypertexts; but Brown is aware that others have trodden this path before him, and he observes that "the fiction of Eastgate Systems is far from intuitive in reading or creation". He presumably feels, therefore, that the market is still wide open for something more user friendly. Certainly the DEN system seems free of the mazelike structures, links in the middle of sentences and narratives of unguessable length which characterise Eastgate's output. The layout of Intimacies is refreshingly straightforward, consisting essentially of an oblong grid divided into windows. At the top is a row of buttons labelled "Week One", "Week Two" and so forth. Beneath, a row of subsidiary buttons labelled for the days of the week. Click on "Week Two", "Thursday" (for example) and a list of emails sent on that day is shown: click on one of them, and its text appears in the window below, laid out to look like an email, complete with headers, return addresses and (occasionally) sham links in the body of the text.
One important aspect of the epistolatory novel - like the novel pretending to be a journal, or the novel pretending to be a casebook - is that it is a fiction pretending not to be a fiction: pretending, instead, to be a collection of authentic documents. Brown takes this aspect of his narrative - its presentational verisimilitude - considerably further than Richardson, because not only does he make his emails look like authentic emails, he also incorporates other types of digital document. The DEN grid includes extra panes in which HTML pages, Instant Messenger transcripts and pager messages can all be displayed. All of this helps to give the feeling that Intimacies is more than just a string of email transcripts. It recreates in miniature the environment of online communication. It will probably feel very antiquated in about five years' time, but the effect at the moment is familiar and immersive. There is a price to be paid for all this user-friendliness, however. The insistence on a sequence of weeks, a sequence of days within each week, and a chronological sequence of messages within each day effectively abolishes one of the most interesting aspects of new media narratives - the fact that, unlike pages in a book, digital pages do not have to be bound or displayed in any fixed order, and therefore nonlinear storytelling is a far more viable option in a digital format that it has ever been in print. Intimacies is a novel of unabashed linearity, and although this has undoubtedly helped to make it more accessible to "ordinary" readers, it also gives it, for a new media work, a peculiarly conservative feel.
The novel has other weaknesses too. One drawback of the epistolatory form is that people do not always write their letters (or emails) in the way that an author requires to flesh out the narrative of a novel. Richardson gets round this problem in two ways. Firstly he has Pamela writing home to her parents, who live at a distance and therefore have no way of knowing what is happening to her unless she tells them. Later in the novel, her sequence of letters turns into a journal, so that she becomes more like the conventional first-person narrator in a modern novel, telling her own story in her own words, but telling it to no-one in particular. Eric Brown, in keeping with his general concern for verisimilitude, tries to confine himself more strictly to the limits of what people might actually tell each other in emails (he even goes so far as to include spelling-mistakes and emoticons). He draws on a wider cast of correspondents than Richardson, which allows him to have his minor characters commenting on his major ones and describing their behaviour to each other. But his problems come at the end of the novel, when almost all of the characters finally meet. In order for us, the readers, to discover what happened at this meeting, he is obliged to have them describing their behaviour to each other - "You, of course, were priceless as usual when you had everybody load into your Jag to follow him there to join the party" - and the effect is rather ludicrous in places.
In the final analysis, however, the most serious problem with Intimacies is that it lacks resonance. It is undeniably readable, but we don't reach the end of it feeling that we have been taken on an emotional or spiritual journey. To an extent this is to do with characterisation. Brown does distinguish the voices of his characters from one another effectively, but at the end of the novel we know very little more about Pamela and Braz or their friends and relatives than we did at the beginning. The description "quite nice - middle class - good sense of humour" would cover almost all of them, in the same way that a handkerchief covers a hand of playing-cards. Fatally, we never really take Braz seriously as a potential villain. There's too little mystery about him: a man who emails his friends to ask them whether he should arrange a meeting with a girl he's met on the Internet, then emails them again to announce when and where the meeting has been arranged, hardly seems to be keeping his thoughts to himself in the manner of a potential rapist. At one point, after the crime has been perpetrated, Braz begins to behave rather aggressively and unreasonably, whereupon his boss comments to his best friend that "It's got to be just an appearance vs. reality thing". The phrase reminds us for a moment of what might have been: reminds us, in fact, of Othello, with its incredibly complex and deeply disturbing account of the deceptiveness of human relationships, the unknowableness of other people when trust begins to break down. The comparison is an unfair one, but there is never a hint in Intimacies of similar depths beginning to open. Braz, as a male protagonist, is far less interesting than Richardson's Mr B; and this brings us back to the fact that the difficulties in Richardson's novel are inherent in the relationship between his two main characters, whereas the difficulties faced by Pam and Braz come from outside. Richardson's hero is a potential rapist as well as a potentially good husband, partly because of the constraints placed on him by society, and partly because that is the nature of his sexual desire. This is what makes his relationship with Pamela compelling. We catch glimpses of his inner struggle, the struggle between lust and respect, good and evil, and we recognise that the same struggle is taking place in us, as voyeur-readers of the novel. By comparison, Eric Brown affords us only one glimpse into the minds of his voyeur-villains, and it fails either to involve or convince us:
You're out of the picture, buddy, so why not join me and live vicariously through her life with 'real' people? You can get off the way I do seeing that sweet young thing sending cute little notes to everyone she knows... It'll feel real good getting 'there.'
Intimacies probably owes its success to a combination of factors: the unpretentious crispness of its writing, the user-friendliness of its interface, and, of course, the unusually wide extent (for a new media work) to which it was publicised and written about on its release. For anybody interested in the commercial possibilities of hyperliterature, it bears examination as a slick and professional example of online publishing. For anybody interested in a good story it is equally well worth downloading. But engaging as it is, those who are interested in the experimental possibilities of digital writing may find it unsatisfactory.
© Edward Picot, September 2005
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