December 14, 2004

The 7th Email (from Richard Powers)

by Nick Montfort · , 3:14 am

Powers' story“They Come in a Steady Stream Now” is a new electronic literature piece by Richard Powers, author of the novels Prisoner’s Dilemma, The Gold Bug Variations, Galatea 2.2, and Plowing the Dark, among others. It’s told (basically) in seven emails, which are delivered in a Flash faux-email-reader frame.

I learned about the piece from Jill, who learned about it from Eric, and, reading the comments that these two made about the story, I see that they didn’t like it very much. I liked it a lot, as it happens, and I’ll try to explain why.

First, I want to mention a few things about the texture and framing of the piece. One aspect that was at least amusing was the juxtaposition of advertisements for and popup windows promoting the literary journal Ninth Letter, which published the story, with rather authentic-looking spam emails. I read this as a sort of confession that writers are also shameless advertisers – as I am – and that Powers doesn’t really have high ground to stand upon to denounce spam, if all he wanted to do was denounce it. Interestingly, he doesn’t just denounce it: he uses it to evoke memories and contemplate the world, the past, and the nature of humanity amid various consumer options and opportunities for technological enhancement.

I also found myself actually reading, or at least clicking on and looking at, the spam messages that were included as part of this Flash fiction. This prompted me to think about the different mode, or modes, of reading that I use when scrolling and paging through the social, pragmatic, and commercial messages that I find in my inbox, and the very different mode that I use when reading a Richard Powers novel or story. Within “They Come in a Steady Stream Now,” I wanted to search through every text as if I were looking for secret doors and passages; when I read my emails or shovel them into /dev/null without reading them, I am more often just seeking to know whether I am looking at an “action item” or not.

Yes, annoying pop-up windows can appear – within the Flash frame, not outside it. The first thing to say about this is that there’s a point to that. I don’t think that justifies an annoying interface by itself, but there is a point. Additionally, though, these windows only appear if you click on spam messages. You have to make the choice to be distracted from Powers’ prose, to not want to read what he’s “sending” you, in order to face that annoyance. That, I think, is an effective argument for the annoyance.

Eric was dissapointed that this piece wasn’t another Blue Company, but that didn’t really trouble me. I figured I wasn’t supposed to read for hours because “They Come in a Steady Stream Now” was presented in Flash; it didn’t seem to be something I could bookmark or that would be sent to me over a period of weeks. Also, the first of the texts that were marked as from Powers was titled “one of seven,” letting me know something about the extent of the work. The piece is short, easily read in a single sitting or even during part of a workaday lunch break, and to me, at least, it seemed to be the right length and didn’t purport to be any longer.

While Jill didn’t find the writing extraordinary, I did. It may have been years since I’ve read thirteen paragraphs online – taken as a series of paragraphs, rather than an interactive experience involving writing – that have been as engaging, provocative, reflective, and beautiful. I don’t mean to belittle the experience of receiving Blue Company, over several weeks, or the experience of rollicking through The Unknown or sifting through Reagan Library or solving an intricate and well-written interactive fiction. Those experiences are all longer and more involved, and their wonderful effects on the reader are not a result of thirteen paragraphs placed one after another. I’d be glad to be proved wrong about the quality of this writing, so let me invite you to do just that: If there are about two pages of prose online somewhere that are more extraordinary than these, presented originally to be read in a new media format, please let me know about them in a comment below.

Now, on to the spoilers.

Jill commented on “They Come in a Steady Stream Now” without having read the end of it. That’s not a crime when we’re talking about electronic literature, which often has no end. But this piece does have an end, and it’s worth reaching. After getting to the seventh email, you are asked to register by entering an email address. The final paragraph of the text – along with the rest of the text – is then sent to you in email as a PDF attachment. If you use an address that doesn’t allow attachments, or an address you never check, you don’t get the end of the story. I don’t think this is some exquisite coup de grace of the metafictional presentation of the story, but it’s something along the lines of a nice touch. Powers, who purports to be writing in December in the dates of his email messages, concludes by taking the reader outside the computer’s window, outside the box, outside the room’s window: “Out the window, just behind the screen, something like July is glinting off the gutters.”

The genius of “They Come in a Steady Stream Now” is that it, like many of Power’s novels, connects our computer-mediated commuications and experiences with the contents of our memory, the way we process it, and the environment we live in, with sunlight and gutters and missed opportunities and the future.