An Eye is Always Watching Us

by James Draney

Sam Riviere, Safe Mode
Test Centre, 128pp ISBN 9780993569333 £20.00

‘I don’t have the energy for fiction,’ writes Sam Riviere. I can understand why. So much of today’s literary fiction has rather grand ambitions. Writers search desperately for something to say about our age of information, our so-called screen culture, the bits and bytes slowly subsuming the most intimate corners of our lives. Communications technology and its consequences are literary fiction’s subject du jour. Novels ‘about’ new media, computers and the information economy appear monthly, as if straight off an assembly line. Yet few novelists seem to understand that representing our new media society comes with an array of vexing problems, aesthetic and otherwise. The weaker productions of this type will settle for the Internet as a matter of content. Characters will use computers or smartphones. They will mouse and click, scroll and swipe. Themes of psychological dislocation, spiritual emptiness and social atomisation abound. Thus, in the popular imagination, technology becomes the dangerous Other of our ailing, humanistic literary culture. Our devices are seen, rightly or wrongly, as some sort of threat. But what exactly is being threatened? Who are the potential victims? Where, indeed, is the scene of the crime?

Consider Olivia Sudjic’s elegant new book Sympathy (2017), which some critics have described as the first great Instagram novel. Sudjic does a wonderful job dissecting the mores and codes of behaviour surrounding our entertainment-surveillance complex, but the observations in her tale about digital stalking and celebrity obsession feel shopworn, hollow, obvious. To tell us that our social media obsessions are ‘creepy’ is somehow boring. Nor does a stylish description of what it feels like to hold a smartphone tell us much about how new media are changing our collective inner life. Description, in this sense, is superfluous. Representations of the gadgets themselves – smartphones, surveillance systems, artificial intelligence – are ineffective because such devices are transitory, ephemeral. They will soon be wiped out by new generations of ever more sophisticated tools, which will in turn come with new sets of mores, rules and behavioral codes. The true consequences of our devices – that is, their cognitive, economic and political effects – remain obscure to us. It will be some time before we’re able to parse the severe evolution currently taking place at the very core of our social life. In some ways, we’ve never been more distant from our present age.

Perhaps this is why the most moving and successful books about the Internet aren’t really ‘about’ the Internet at all. Simon Critchley’s Memory Theatre (2014), for instance – a novel about a philosopher who embarks on an obsessive study of the concept of memory – has more to say about our curious dependence on technological apparatuses than does Spike Jonze’s sci-fi love story Her (2013). Likewise, the allegorical power of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) still casts a long shadow over any work of art that aspires to tell us something about the way we live now. McCarthy’s book – a tale of obsession, simulation and the search for some lost authenticity – is successful because it doesn’t ‘represent’ technology per se but allows the logic of our communication society to function as an absent presence haunting the narrative itself. Remainder is just that: the moist footprint that technology leaves in the tracks of our consciousness. In comparison, McCarthy’s more recent attempts to probe our communication society in novels like C (2010) and Satin Island (2015) seem weak, far too literal. They’re a bit too ‘viewy’, as Ezra Pound might put it. They would be more successful as philosophical essays rather than works of art.

So it makes sense that Sam Riviere – a writer fascinated with the social, economic and cognitive effects of digital culture – should dedicate his youthful energy to poetry, a genre that has far more interesting ways of dealing with our media-saturated environment. Unlike today’s novelists, contemporary poets haven’t made the mistake of relegating our digital condition to mere artistic content. Rather, form – the very construction of the poem itself – has proved far more interesting territory for these poets to map. Put another way, following Kenneth Goldsmith, contemporary British poets like Rachael Allen, Crispin Best, Harry Burke, Sophie Collins and Sam Riviere understand that context is the new content. The structure of our everyday experience is simply our experience of the mode of production: today, poets generate lines, rearrange the text of a Google search, select or curate already-written text in a form deemed ‘poetic’.

In this sense Riviere and his generation of poets are more in touch with the laws and structures that govern everyday life than their cousins in literary fiction, who still regard the realist novel as the best way to reveal whatever is ‘new’ about modern experience. But much of literary fiction has made another error – what seems so ‘new’ about new media isn’t really that new at all. In his introduction to the anthology I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best (2014), Burke notes that post-Internet poets (unlike most post-Internet novelists) have found it more instructive to see ‘what’s occurring now as a careful and important negotiation with what has gone before; a reworking rather than a rupture.’ Technology is nothing to be afraid of. Unlike those novelists who attempt to represent our social media society, post-Internet poets have taken our highly mediated situation as a given. So what if literary production is no more than data processing? There are bigger fish to fry.

But poetry, like data processing, has its limits. The genre of the novel, for all its faults, can do things that poetry just can’t. Poetry might be able to evoke or create a mood, but only a novel can sustain it. Where poems tend to constrain or constrict, the novel is free, capacious, endlessly fungible. Poetry might be news that stays news, as Pound has it, but only a novel can mimic our information delivery systems. And despite the novel’s persistent affinity with the representational conventions of the 19th century, it is, unlike verse, endlessly re-inventible. A poet can only experiment with form in so many ways, whereas a novelist can take any sort of material (any collection of readymade voices) and turn it into that curious thing called fiction.

Perhaps this is why Riviere was finally able to muster the energy for such a task, and readers of his poetry should be very glad that he finally did. Safe Mode, published in a beautiful edition by Test Centre, is not a conventional novel. It is, more accurately, a work of extended prose fiction in the form of what the poet Tan Lin called an ‘ambient novel’. For those unfamiliar with this young genre, an ambient novel is precisely what it sounds like: a collection of fragments, images, themes and ideas. Lin’s ‘ambient poetics’ are well suited for a world in which media technology operates sub rosa, beneath the threshold of our attention – always on, always recording, always calculating, always measuring. The ambient novel is a collection of scenes without any grounding scenario; all atmosphere and no account. Put simply, it is a novel without narrative. It ‘aspires to the condition of Muzak,’ as Lin puts it. In this sense, Safe Mode, like Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004, The Joy of Cooking (2010), is more about mood than emotion. But don’t mistake this for an exercise in pure style. Riviere’s new book lies somewhere on the spectrum between the ‘low level durational energy’ of Lin’s work and the more conventional literary fiction mentioned at the outset of this essay. There is nothing boring, dry or academic about Safe Mode. It’s more than mere Muzak.

That being said, Safe Mode cannot be easily described or summarised. True to the ambient novel genre, the book has no story, no plot, little in the way of anything we could call ‘narrative’ in a conventional sense. The closest I can come to offering a summary would be to say that the book is arranged in the manner of (or at least has the feel or atmosphere of) a diary. Safe Mode is all observations, aphorisms and speculations. There are characters, to be sure, but they are hardly more than proper nouns. Events take place, or are recalled, but following Lin, such events are ‘reduced to background clutter.’ There is no climax, no grand crescendo, no thrilling plot twist or dramatic denouement. And yet, unlike Lin’s work, Safe Mode is not wholly experimental or conceptual, but realist in its logic. I suspect that these fragments, their drift and dérive, are meant to be mimetic of our mediated form of experience. This is the great strength of Riviere’s new book, what makes it so strangely compelling.

But this brings us back to those vexing problems, aesthetic and otherwise, mentioned earlier. How are we to represent our atmosphere of ubiquitous media if not at the level of plot or content? The answer, for Riviere, is to create and sustain a mood. It is only through mood, or atmosphere, that we can begin to approach the question of what makes our age different from that of the steam engine. The world described in Safe Mode – which is to say, our world – is rife with connections but without any coherent logic. In short, as Riviere puts it, ‘. . . there was no arch narrative, just this massive documentary.’ With this, Riviere evokes the nagging sense that we are always being watched, that we are forever subject to an invisible apparatus which catalogues and archives our every desire, intuition, curiosity and movement, and – most importantly – which puts all of it up for sale. ‘I jump from command to command, received by my phone with a knowing little chime,’ Riviere writes. ‘It tells me that I am carrying out a small part of a big plan, dreamed up in offices inside a distant, walled city.’

To make matters more confusing, there is no ‘correct’ way to read Safe Mode. In fact, the volume has no real front or back, no beginning or end: the book occurs twice, back-to-back, with minor variations. Its two ghostly narrators (one first-person, the other third-person) are inverted in both sections. For instance, in the first section we’re told that ‘James’ undertook an action, whereas in the second section this same paragraph is rendered as ‘I’, and vice versa. (Let’s pause to consider the etymological root of ‘ambient’: from French ambiant or Latin ambient – ‘going round’).

The usual cues for how to read a novel, such as the assumption that the book has a stable set of voices, is undercut from the outset. We’re never quite sure who’s speaking. We’re never quite sure which bits of the text Riviere has written and which he has appropriated, copied and pasted from the limitless archive of the net. And yet, with characteristic wit, Riviere reminds us that ‘voice’ was never really a literary category worth taking seriously anyway. Safe Mode (or at least one half of it) begins with one of our narrators, James, writing (or ‘thinking of writing’) to a German author he admires. In the letter he is writing (or thinks of writing) James asks the author to speak his, James’s, words. Why? Because James prefers the ‘hesitant intonation and soft, precise lisp’ of the author’s voice to his own inauthentic presence:

Dear Marcus, I’ve heard it said the editing process is the only thing that separates the author from the work. All the behind-the-scenes rigging, the nights of toil and dark coffee, trimming and cropping, until it falls to the page, replete, that smooth tonal effect, like a discarded skin, so easy to get into . . . I wish now to make my voice as fully disclosed and undisguised as possible. A performance, but one whose intentions have been made transparent. Let me get to the point. I would like for you to speak these attempts of mine into a microphone (which I’ll provide) . . . I often hear your voice in other novels. How to explain the attraction . . . Perhaps I feel my words would seem more authentically present in accent that’s more of a stranger to the language? If you agree, this would be the first piece you’d record.

What follows is a series of performances, but their intention is anything but transparent. Safe Mode consists of essayistic monologues, images and reflections spoken by James and his inverse, the unnamed ‘I’. But gone is the tone of bitter irony that characterises much of Riviere’s poetry. Safe Mode – although witty and acerbic – is far more elegiac (dare I say ‘poetic’) than anything Riviere has published previously. Here, the contradictions and disappointments of modern life are treated gently, rather than mowed down and satirised. Our narrators have relationships, friendships, fantasies. They stare through windows and ponder the nature of the self. ‘I’ve never solved the riddle of my erratic signature,’ one of them says. ‘It is, as they say, as if something crawled across the page and died. But each time the path is differently agonized, each time a new death. It’s taken me until now to realize that writing involves my actual exclusion from my life.’

Riviere approaches his subject tactfully, indirectly, and the overall effect is far more powerful for it. Like Remainder and Memory Theatre, Safe Mode manages to say something deeply significant about our digital condition without saying very much at all. Unlike Riviere’s poetry collections 81 Austerities (2010), Standard Twin Fantasy (2014) and Kim Kardashian’s Marriage (2015), which tended to take a literal tone with regard to their subject matter, Safe Mode reads far more like an allegory than an assemblage. Yet Safe Mode also proves that the novel’s inability to adequately represent our atmosphere of ubiquitous media does not spell the end for the genre. Riviere’s book is a prototype for the novel of the future. If the future will have novels at all.

‘We are worth more when someone looks at us,’ reads one of the book’s two epigraphs. The words come from the notebooks of Joseph Joubert, a French essayist from the 18th century, famous in our day for being feted by Maurice Blanchot. For Blanchot, Joubert is ‘a writer close to us, closer than the great literary figures of his time.’ He is, in short, a modern writer. His concerns are our concerns. Riviere takes this sentiment quite literally, for his chosen epigraph is uncannily prescient. Safe Mode, more than any novel that purports to be about our surveillance society, captures what it feels like live under conditions of high technology, to be viewed, catalogued, measured. ‘We are worth more when someone looks at us,’ writes Joubert. ‘And, because of this, an eye is always watching us.’