'The Novelist' Pulls Off a Rare Feat

Jordan Castro's debut manages to be interesting while also being about spending too much time online

Hanson O'Haver
Gawker Review of Books

The first step is admitting you have a problem. The Novelist begins with the unnamed narrator (henceforth referred to as The Novelist, sans italics) sitting down in the morning with the intention of working on his novel, “a third person, present tense, short-chaptered account of three days in 2015, during which I was going through severe benzodiazepine and heroin withdrawal in a house where I’d just signed a lease with my soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, while the people I’d been working for, selling weed, called me constantly about the exorbitant amount of money I had lost in a blackout and now owed them.” The Novelist sits in front of his computer and, instead of clicking on Google Docs, where his draft lives, he opens Gmail, immediately derailing his day. Things go from bad to worse: he opens a new tab and clicks the Twitter icon in the favorites row. “I had specifically not wanted to click Twitter before working on my novel. Every morning, I woke with the general intention of not clicking Twitter, and, with varying degrees of effort and success, I resisted until I half-convinced myself of a legitimate reason to click Twitter, or, in a weak moment, clicked it unthinkingly.”

The Novelist checks his notifications, scrolls through his feed. “Twitter, over time, had proven calamitous when it came to getting work done. I clicked unthinkingly, often feverishly, and if I started in the morning, I would generally continue, unhinged, throughout the day, on both my laptop and my phone, everywhere I went, no matter what else I was doing.” He clicks Gmail again, then back to Twitter.

“Fuck, I thought, simply.”

The Novelist is the new debut from Jordan Castro, the former editor of New York Tyrant, the literary magazine founded by the late Giancarlo DiTrapano. The bulk of the novel follows the pattern laid out above: we read The Novelist’s inner-monologue as he scrolls through Twitter, tries to work on his manuscript, checks Twitter again, drinks yerba mate, starts a different draft, uses the bathroom, checks Gmail, checks Twitter, wonders if drinking coffee will help (it doesn’t), checks Instagram, returns to his original draft, etc. What’s incredible is not that Castro keeps this up for the entirety of the book, but how well it works.

It’s hard to write something interesting about a subject when the correct takeaway is the obvious one. It happened with all the breathless prognostications about Donald Trump, and it’s happened with social media. What new can be said? For a long time, I thought there was no future in novels about the subject: either something will radically change and the way we use the internet and our phones (constantly, maneuvering through the physical world with the grace and focus and manners of someone three beers deep) will read as dated Sci-Fi; or, we’ll continue the path we’re on and novels will be the least of anyone’s concern. So I will admit to feeling a bit of dread when I saw that The Novelist begins with the words “I opened my laptop.” The Novelist’s observations about using social media (“clicking to see if there is anything new, any new likes, any new content, or clicking unconsciously for ‘no reason,’ not even cognizant of the clicking, countless times throughout the day, every day, in a zombie-like or fiendish manner; most of the time seeing nothing new, having no new likes”) are accurate, but where the novel really exceeds the standard criticism is in turning this distraction into the drumbeat of modern life, on top of which a compelling guy riffs about life, literature, and pooping.

People who spend too much time online tend to fantasize about all the things they could accomplish if it weren’t for phones and computers; I’m not sure it’s so simple. There is a part in David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King, set in the 1980s, in which a character compares the unflinching work habits of IRS agents with those of normal people: “The way hard deskwork really goes is in jagged little fits and starts, brief intervals of concentration alternated with frequent trips to the men’s room, the drinking fountain, the vending machine, constant visits to the pencil sharpener, phone calls you suddenly feel are imperative to make, rapt intervals of seeing what kinds of shapes you can bend a paperclip into.” Sitting down to work has always felt nearly “impossible,” but maybe the distractions have gotten even better. It might be a fine distinction, but in my reading The Novelist is less an internet novel, or a novel about how social media is making us crazy, than a novel about being on the computer. Without the sheer paperclip-bending boredom, it’s now easier than ever to find a reason to put something off for an hour, a day, only to look up years later and find yourself waiting for real life to start.

What’s incredible is not that Castro keeps this up for the entirety of the book, but how well it works.

The world is funny, sometimes “haha” but mostly “that’s funny” — the type of wry bemusement that fiction conveys better than any other medium. The Novelist gets this; Castro has an ear for comic timing and eye for the kind of observations that linger just below consciousness. The Novelist remembers his introduction to Facebook in high school, from a girl named Ashley who said, “It’s a good place to store all your pictures.” He also remembers another conversation with her: “I hadn’t understood her pride in having sucked a bigger penis than her friend, and it affected me.” He finds Ashley’s Facebook page and considers her photos, in which his former classmates, who look the same as they did in high school while simultaneously looking like their mothers, pose with thick-necked men. “I could have lived so many lives, I considered abstractedly.”

A similar issue is facing The Novelist less abstractedly: he could have written so many novels. As a single unbroken inner-monologue (if there’s a German term more precise than stream of consciousness, I don’t have it), The Novelist is an heir to novels like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine and Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters, both of which are mentioned and paid tribute in the text. The Mezzanine is an account of a guy’s thoughts while riding an escalator after buying shoelaces on his lunch break. Just as that character wonders why only one of his shoe’s laces had snapped, The Novelist wonders why “Sometimes the right side of my butt required more wipes than the left or the middle.” In an existential running joke, The Novelist is concerned that his use of third person present tense is misguided because the only novel he’s ever read in third person present tense is Ann Beattie’s Chilly Scenes of Winter, and considers trying to instead channel (first person) The Mezzanine.

There are moments of respite from the doubt-inducing screen. He goes to the bathroom, scrolls through the apps, and resolves to focus. “It wasn’t too late to turn things around. When I finished pooping, I would go back to the kitchen and begin to work diligently on my novel. I bounced my right leg up and down; I was going to write a great novel; I was going to crush it; if I worked hard, minute by minute, day by day, I could write a novel I liked, perhaps even a novel I was proud of; I had the ability to change my life through my choices.” This feeling that your capacity to buckle down and get serious lies just around the corner is familiar to anyone who has set a New Year's resolution — as, of course, is the feeling of reaching the end of January unchanged.

An attempt to rework his draft into first person past tense doesn’t prove fruitful: “There seemed to be something buzzing behind my face; thick liquid oozing through my skull, through my shoulders and neck, encasing my brain; no matter how badly I wanted to calmly and methodically work on my novel, whatever thoughts I needed, wherever they came from, got stuck in this goo casing and couldn’t get through to my brain.” It’s hard to imagine a writer who hasn’t felt that goo. (I truly believed I would finish this review a week ago.)

Checking Twitter again, The Novelist sees a stupid tweet from an old literary friend. He thinks of The Woodcutters, a novel in which a man sits alone at an “artistic dinner” and thinks about how much he dislikes everyone there, adding some version of “I thought as I sat in the wing chair” every few sentences. “I could write a novel where I just talked shit about Eric; I could write my own version of Woodcutters,” The Novelist writes, and begins mimicking Bernhard’s caustic prose and claustrophobic repetitions. “Eric is a narcissist, I typed. Eric, having had some success as a young novelist, but not as much success as he had hoped, and not the kind he had anticipated, let it get to his head, and then it crumpled him, I typed. Eric, having had some success, but not enough success, was crumpled like a sock by the success amount, I typed.” I’m sorry to keep quoting at such length but: “success amount”! I can’t get over it. It’s the kind of bizarre coinage that could be found in Mitteleuropean literature or Dril.

Besides Baker and Bernhard, there’s another luminary hanging over The Novelist: “Jordan Castro.” Within the novel, a successful novelist of that name exists as a kind of literary enfant terrible. The fictional Castro is criticized online, called “body-fascist” and “crypto-reactionary” for things his characters say or do, things which the fictional Castro himself refuted. These articles with titles like “Jordan Castro’s Fitness Privilege” are shared by people who never actually read the novels written by the fictional Castro. “Perhaps because I’d realized that I hadn’t actually read any of his work, every time I saw one of these shitstorms taking place, I made a conscious decision to engage directly with the source material,” The Novelist says. He finds that he actually really likes Jordan Castro — perhaps too much. “I didn’t like getting distracted by his tweets. They were so interesting,” The Novelist says. “He was beautiful,” he adds. It’s a really good joke that doubles as a commentary on the common reception of first-person fiction, in which the protagonist (especially when they’re a writer) is seen as a stand-in for the novelist.

Near the end of The Novelist, he remembers a line from Simone de Beauvoir “that a novel’s success was dependent on the illusion of ‘characterological freedom,’ and that this freedom was achieved in part because of how the character really seems free to the author, revealing him- or herself line by line, as the author writes.” The Novelist uses what could be a tedious framework to unfurl a poignant backstory about a sensitive kid who struggled with addiction, got in trouble with the police, and got sober, while still struggling with the fundamental questions of how to live and be an artist. Jordan Castro is not The Novelist, and The Novelist is not the book he’s writing. We have no idea if The Novelist ever finishes his draft. But we do have The Novelist, proof that the distractions are not insurmountable. It's not too late to turn things around. When you finish pooping, if you work hard, minute by minute, day by day, you can crush it.

Hanson O'Haver is a writer in New York.