In Great Company

By Michael J. Seidlinger

Enigmatic Ink
September 2011

Reviewed by Brian Ted Jones


Let's talk mechanics. In Great Company is written in the first person, present tense. It assumes a reader, making it more like an epistolary novel rather than the airborne meditations of other 1st P./Present.T pieces (the Bascombe books, e.g.). The prose isn't concerned with nature or physical description--not in the least; neither does it contain a running account of what the narrator is doing or thinking. Instead, the novel is basically a long, angry and egomaniacal rant from a character who's clearly a basketcase, and who might be a form of AI, who might be a professional blogger, or who might just be a very committed user of social media (the narrator calls his web platform a "Pillar," suggesting an as-yet-uninvented form of SM.)

The layout is bizarre. The book unfolds in double-spaced columns that run down the middle of each page. Almost always, the first letter of the word that begins each new line is capitalized, producing recurrent enjambments one feels clicking into and out of place while reading. Here's a sample:

Who am I, you ask? The
Answer, you'll get what I want
To give, not what I'm asked to
Provide. Every newcomer goes
Through the same judgments,
The same first impressions. It
Truly is no different in the
Digital space than face-to-face.
The only item that survives is
The idea of a person, and that's
All you're going to get from Me.

I'll be blunt: I think this book is brave, and I realize it can sound stupid to call any work of fiction brave in a world where men and women are dying to free their countries from legitimate tyranny, so let me be concrete. First, I think this book is brave just because it's such a strident and unabashed experiment in form (see above).

Second, I think In Great Company is brave because it's actually trying to say something about the effects of social media on all of us--which feels like trying to say something about the psychic costs of the Cold War in, like, the first milliseconds after Japan surrendered. We just don't have enough data yet.

But in spite of that handicap, In Great Company presents a coherent and persuasive theory for what the Facebook/Twitter/MySpace Axis has done to human beings: It's turned us into ideas. And not ideas formed organically, like the idea of space or time, some mental outgrowth of the world as it truly is. Rather, SM has turned us into ideas in the same way Coke ads turn Coke into an idea; but here, it's not a product getting the marketing pitch--it's a personality. "Give Me an idea and I'll give you an Inside glance at the world the Way you wish you could see it," says the narrator, and there's the danger: that in the self-inventions of the digital surf, we stand to lose forever our grip on who we are, and on what is really real. "NATURAL IDEAS ARE IN AS MUCH DANGER AS NATURE," the narrator warns, hinting that, when we give ourselves over to the electric gridwork of "Friends," "Followers" and "Likes," we leave behind the true content of those words: of any words. It's a death spiral, a feedback loop--every lie you tell about yourself in order to gain more market share in the social media world, that's a lie you must now reabsorb, as part of your "true" personality. You can't afford not to. The lie was successful. You got more friends with it. Maybe that's why Seidlinger calls these devices "pillars": they lift us away from the ground

If all this sounds apocalyptic, then you've got a sense of what reading In Great Company is like. There's something locust-gobbling and hair-shirty about the book, both in the grim certainties of its warning, and in the jabbering, fragmented quality of its prose. There's a feeling of disintegratedness running throughout, since the book lacks anything like a traditional plot, even at the most atomic level. After all, "plot" requires, at the very least, a manifest relation between parts; but In Great Company doesn't even make manifest the relation between sentences, between individual words within sentences. Threads divert on a dime. Certain themes or ideas look like they return, but never in a way that points backwards, or ahead; they're more like spooky echoes in the belly of a disintegrating planet. Here, listen:

It seems I'm the
Lone individual that'll comment
On everything that pops up.
Despite all the copying and
Pasting, the link-sharing, the
Images altered and resposted as
Genuine new artifact,
Interaction is spaced out and so
Often it seems like people give
Only slight nods, the mouth
Open, eyes half shut, looking
For the porn websites or the
Violence havens over any real
Communication with people. I
Call it evidence. Evident and
Obvious they had not been
Paying attention and what they
End up with, time and time
Again, it's their attention spans
Lasting a second and they miss
First impact.               

I don't think this effect of thematic unspooling is the product of carelessness--I think Seidlinger is using the structure to make a metaphor for the impact of social media on human communities. It reminds me of information death, that theorized eschatology of modern physics, which holds that when matter has been Big Banging through the universe long enough, the distance between all particles must finally grow into monstrous, aeonic proportions. It's a gorgeous idea, with implications as sad as they are horrifying. The constituents of a single heart will spread to points on the perimeter of a galaxy. A spoken word will have light-millennia to travel before its message can ever reach the ear it was aimed at.

Maybe that's what's Seidlinger thinks is happening to us—that the new, neuron-quick ways we have of talking to one another are approaching a fatal velocity. Ripping us to pieces. Carrying us further and further apart.