Just One More Click

The Novelist BY Jordan Castro. New York: Soft Skull Press. 208 pages. $24.
The cover of The Novelist

The narrator of Jordan Castro’s debut novel, The Novelist, is a writer and a recovering heroin addict. Newly sober, he feels as if he’s seeing the world for the first time, and all the ordinary things he overlooked as an active addict are now taking on a surreal quality—the way the light plays on the bedroom wall alone seems to be too much. He is trying to write a novel about his once-humorous, pathetic life as an addict, except he is now driven by a more common addiction: checking Gmail and scrolling through Twitter. Sobriety gives him a new existence, but the need to feel a dopamine rush remains. The novel occurs over the course of one morning. The narrator opens his laptop, intending to work on his novel in a Google Doc; instead, almost against his own will, he opens his Gmail, an act that creates a domino effect of procrastination and distraction, which all begins with a simple message awaiting him from Li (a character clearly based on Tao Lin): “Having my morning poop now / via iPhone.”  

The Novelist uses the conflicts between life and work and online distraction to explore the vast, modern experience of attempting to stay present even as social media fosters a constant need to click and return. This tension creates a chasm between the narrator’s reality and his fantasies fostered by the internet. In a single morning, the narrator finds a past high school classmate he barely knows on Facebook, which prompts thoughts of an alternative life; ponders the differences between various social-media platforms (“Instagram was vanity and Twitter was pride”); and expands on the feeling of existing between the clicks—the foggy feeling of wanting more stimulation when you’ve tapped out.

Castro creates another split, or series of splits, in his description of the narrator’s fixation on Jordan Castro—not the Jordan Castro on the cover of this book or the narrator himself, but a celebrity-like Jordan Castro whom the narrator follows (secretly) online with both fascination and disdain. It’s autofiction with a twist, with three versions of Jordan Castro in play. The flesh-and-blood Castro introduces his own name into his novel, but instead of simply offering up the usual narrator-as-writer, he also adds another character with the same name who has nothing to do with him, further evoking the skewed relationship between what’s real and what’s online. Castro-the-celebrity further distracts Castro-the-narrator from his original desire to work on the novel, which is supposed to be about his actual experience.

Castro’s narrator faces other hurdles as a writer, particularly his fear that he’s merely producing another “drug novel.” This shouldn’t be a surprise. In many so-called alt-lit novels (Lin’s included), narrators consume and write about using copious amounts of mind-altering substances. The narrator’s anxiety over the “drug novel” reflects his own break from his prior self in addiction. The Novelist does not fit into the usual framework of self-absorbed man gleefully driving toward self-destruction. Castro’s narrator references Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine and Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters as models. As an author, he shares Baker’s attention to the minutest detail of everyday life and admires Bernhard’s misanthropy and hypnotic use of repetition. But it’s Frederick Exley’s Pages from a Cold Island that provides the most telling comparison. Exley’s autobiographical novel, published in 1975, is a first-person account of a writer named Frederick Exley, who is attempting to write a book called Pages from a Cold Island. Spurred on by the obsession and death of his literary hero, Edmund Wilson, he tries his best to control his drinking, avoid humiliation, work on his novel, and teach at the University of Iowa. It is a hilarious, disgusting, offensive novel filled with literary gossip (detailed run-ins with Gloria Steinem and Norman Mailer) and Exley’s uncontrollable, pathetic male libido. The tragedy of Exley’s career is that he was unable to see beyond the delusion that he could soothe his creative mania by drowning it in alcohol. Castro presents a different narrative, not the Exley-like portrayal of a writer bumbling through life, unable to accept his alcoholism, but a portrait of a writer who is trying to move past addiction. Here, Castro-the-narrator attempts to reflect on, and leave behind, his chaotic and benumbed self, all while attempting to be present among the whirlwind of his own compulsions and the mechanisms of contemporary online existence.

Toward the end of the novel, the narrator takes his dog for a walk, leaving the apartment for the first time since the novel began. While this new environment “felt like . . . a simulation of the forest,” the narrator tries his best to heed the Twitter adage, “touch grass.” He observes the “autumnal colors” and “spindly trees” and lets his dog off his leash, watching him run ahead. He reaches for his phone to record the scene on his Instagram story, but remembers he intentionally left his phone behind. He’s forced to reckon with the nature around him, which feels like a movie, “seen through a screen.” The narrator pauses and a shift occurs. He reflects on the complex systems moving and growing regardless of his control. He understands his insignificance in relation to the immense natural world. For some, this is a source of anxiety, but for the narrator it is a renewal—a hopeful interlude in his constant need to click and divert.

Castro’s debut novel uses the process of writing (and not-writing) to reflect on social media’s inescapable and numbing pull. It also upends the historical “drug novel” by offering a portrait of what life looks like in recovery. The narrator’s hopeful reorientation out of this simulated, technological world opens space to be present, to think of his partner, and to return home humbled by the machinations of the actual world. Of course, like the novel itself, this is all a process, and Castro leaves us wondering how long it will all last: “I was only just now beginning, perhaps, perhaps not, to see . . . ”

Taylor Lewandowski is an educator and writer from Indiana.