August 13, 2003

Blue My Mind

by Nick Montfort · , 1:50 am

I just whacked down a bit of the trAce Web site to my iBook’s hard disk in violation of the DMCA. Then Sid and I went down to the White Dog and read Scott Rettberg’s Kind of Blue, an email novel in the vein of, and following up on, Rob Wittig’s Blue Company. Damn.

If you read all the subject lines one after another they make this sort of INSANE FUCKING POEM that is like the chapter titles of If on a winter’s night a traveller assumed into heaven or something. (The word “fuck” occurs only 45 times in the 105 email messages that make up Kind of Blue, by the way.) Reading KOB in one sitting made the summer of ’02 rush back to me like a frozen margarita, slightly hurting the roof of my mouth. It’s all there: the fallout from 9/11, that season’s stage of the economic slump, the Enron scandal, Rettberg’s desperate struggle to avoid working on his dissertation, male fantasies of getting lesbians to “jump the fence.” It sounds too good to be true but YES even if you weren’t lucky enough to be one of the original recipients of this email novel, you can read it all, right now, or at least during your next three or four lunch breaks. It only takes about two hours. You can see how much is left because the links turn kind of purple as you go. If you use wget to download it you can even read it offline, in the tub. Or in a bar.

Kind of Blue is noticably better than the (formally similar) e-pistolary book Exegesis, which wasn’t that interesting of a literary effort but which I did find to be something of a page-turner. While that novel tried to wax philosophical about the nature of intelligence, KOB takes in the times and the twisting of our culture; it manages to be insanely timely, as if the messages are meant to seem dated when read more than a few hours after their composition.

Kind of Blue might work well as a book (and we’ll see if it does, since it’s coming in a codex edition that also includes Blue Company) but it’s clear that the Web presentation is a good one, although certainly different from the original direct-to-the-inbox method of distribution. You can think of the Web site as documenting the original email project, but it makes an enjoyable read as a work in its own right. It’s even more enjoyable in some ways, because you don’t have to worry about whether Scott is ever going to stop the Berto-like madness and conclude.

Formally, KOB doesn’t offer interesting interactivity of the sort that is easy (in some respects) to theorize about. But for critics and theorists, one point is certainly worth noting: it is a novel not just distributed and read on the network, but actually written on the network. There are other online and email performers, but few authors (Wittig being the only exception that comes to mind) have brought that idea together with that of the serial novel.

And this explains what exactly this whole thing is about in a somewhat more coherent way.