Self Fare

LIVEBLOG BY Megan Boyle. Tyrant Books. Paperback, 550 pages. $21.

The cover of LIVEBLOG

MEGAN BOYLE'S NOVEL LIVEBLOG is more than seven hundred pages long and doesn’t attempt to seduce the reader hesitating at its size. “THIS IS NOT GOING TO BE INTERESTING” Boyle writes in paragraph three. “I AM NOT GOING TO TRY TO MAKE THIS SOUND INTERESTING OR TRY TO MAKE YOU LIKE ME OR THINK ABOUT IF YOU ARE READING THIS OR ENJOYING READING THIS, IT’S JUST GOING TO BE WHAT IT IS: A FUNCTIONAL THING THAT WILL HOPEFULLY HELP ME FEEL MORE LIKE IMPROVING MYSELF” Our narrator, Megan Boyle, explains that she will be recording “everything i do, think, feel, and say” in order to develop a sense of accountability for her life, which feels to her like an “event i don’t seem to be participating in much, and so could be attending by mistake.” It is 2 am on March 17, 2013, and she is unemployed, living with her parents outside Baltimore, and about to snort heroin—its interactions with Xanax she’ll later have to research—and take a bath.

She lasts until September, writing in a diary format that is thorough but thankfully light on bodily functions; she estimates initially that “there are probably like, 12% various things i choose not to include every day.” Whether her time-stamped life is truly uninteresting depends on what kind of voyeur you’re pretending not to be. By the second page, you see why Megan wants to make a change: She eats little (a recipe for her “ ‘least you can do’ smoothie”: two bananas, one large bunch spinach, ice), sleeps less (being awake for more than fifty hours doesn’t affect her style as much as you’d expect), finds it difficult to shower, and takes a wide array of drugs—some I’d never heard of—in eye-widening quantities and combinations, not because she wants to party but because she wants her “thoughts to be changed.” Sex is given less space than dreams, long drives, interactions at the supermarket, and time spent watching television with her mother in bed. The book doesn’t have a plot except for the author’s desire to find one, and it builds momentum by posing a simple question: Can Megan Boyle get it together?

Still from Megan Boyle’s YouTube video “Galantamine Effects on Dreaming/Sleep,”September 2016.
Still from Megan Boyle’s YouTube video “Galantamine Effects on Dreaming/Sleep,”

September 2016.

Liveblog was originally published online, where it generated contained enthusiasm in the alt-lit community. Vacillating between outsider and amateur, alt lit was a fleeting movement of young writers, mostly poets, who depicted sex, drugs, and the emotional dissonance of online life in a direct, detached style; internet consensus dates it from 2011 to 2014. Like her ex-husband, Tao Lin, Boyle is one of alt lit’s transcendent predecessors. By the time she started liveblogging she had, among other things, written a book of poetry called selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee and made several shaky laptop movies with Lin under the name MDMAfilms. One, the subversively delicate Mumblecore (2011), documented their relationship and their Las Vegas “desk wedding,” about which the pair later answered live questions over Gchat for the website Thought Catalog. Boyle is also the basis for Erin, the girlfriend/wife in Lin’s 2013 novel, Taipei; in her novel, she and her mother cry as they read it to each other over the phone. “i feel lucky or something,” she writes, perhaps the first person ever to feel such a thing about being thinly fictionalized in an ex-lover’s novel, “to be written about in this way, that tao found words to describe these things i remember feeling and thinking too.”

Boyle’s writing shares themes (drugs, artmaking, unabashed existentialism) with Lin’s, and both inventory stray impressions and shifting moods in novels that may themselves be considered thought catalogs. But Boyle is goofier, more straightforwardly charming, and she uses the loose rules of internet grammar to careen from delirious to cynical to demoralized to possibly better than yesterday. She is not detached, as Lin has often been called, so much as unmoored. In subject matter, Liveblog also resembles recent novels depicting female disillusionment—among them Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Catherine Lacey’s The Answers, and Jade Sharma’s Problems. But while the narrators of these tight, polished novels speak in steady tones of sly nihilism or emptied resignation, as if their authors have dressed them in large sunglasses and T-shirts that say “Nothing Matters,” Megan desperately wants to believe something does. Boyle has stronger links to participatory and conceptual art, particularly the work of On Kawara, who, in addition to his precise “Date Paintings,” sent thousands of postcards to friends and colleagues, each stamped with the time he got up on a given day. Megan’s especially despairing missives remind me of his telegrams, the first of which read, “I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE DON’T WORRY,” “I AM NOT GOING TO COMMIT SUICIDE WORRY,” and “I AM GOING TO SLEEP FORGET IT.” Irregularly over three decades, he went on to send nearly nine hundred that said, “I AM STILL ALIVE.”

As the captain’s log of an at-sea millennial, Liveblog resembles a social media feed, both extreme and mundane, shocking and tedious. Lists—“MY FUNDS, AS I KNOW THEM TO BE,” “WAYS I KNOW HOW TO TALK TO PEOPLE: EASIEST/LEAST STRESSFUL (FAVORITE) TO HARDEST/MOST STRESSFUL (LEAST FAVORITE),” “WHAT I THINK SEX WITH CERTAIN GAME SHOW HOSTS WOULD BE LIKE”—coexist with more traditionally literary passages describing memories and conversations. Like other works of autofiction—particularly Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series—Liveblog challenges the reader to accept it for “JUST . . . WHAT IT IS,” a book with fluctuating levels of fact and fiction. Along with mentioning real people and places, and its documented history on the internet, the book crisscrosses Boyle’s social media accounts, where she discussed the liveblog as she was writing it and, recently, the effect it had on her. Sometimes Megan admits to having lied, or left out something significant, like possibly breaking a finger; these confessions seem only to reinforce the deep-down truth of the document.

THE IDEA THAT no one will care about the daily life of a depressed twenty-seven-year-old woman whose existence takes place as much online as off is proved wrong every day on social media and reality TV. The danger is not that it will be uninteresting but that it will be too interesting. “I turned myself into a lab rat,” Chris Kraus said about her 1997 novel, I Love Dick, in 2006. “I was very naive.” But while Kraus described that novel as “a very high joke” about power that nobody got, Megan insists she does not have “an agenda,” almost as if to convince herself. Neither arch nor ironic, she is sincerely dedicated to the “negative reinforcement” of relaying her life to an audience. But negotiating private life in public requires a disorienting mix of self-discovery and self-distancing; it’s impossible to act like no one’s watching when the threat—or hope—of judgment is the entire point. When Megan recognizes, while telling someone about the liveblog, that “it’s a different ‘me’ who types than the ‘me’ sort of talking in the car right now” she becomes afraid and feels like she needs to lie down. (To be fair, she is also on mushrooms.) She says she wants “to eventually have the most information about a person possible on the internet,” but there’s a reason that prospect is horrifying (or should be)—it would be like throwing a party and letting in everyone but yourself.

The liveblog quickly becomes a “hellish, repetitive” document. Instead of vaulting Megan into productivity and well-adjustment it becomes just another responsibility. Worse, it’s one that reminds her that life needs no organizing principle but time; all it requires is that you not die. “the only thing I have to look forward to is some idea that it’s not going to be ‘now’ someday,” she writes. “it’s always going to be now though.”

Megan begins leaving entire days, and then weeks, blank; documenting a relationship with a “private” guy referred to as “[omitted]” makes her anxious. The entire project makes her anxious. Her fantasies of producing only the liveblog for the rest of her life dissipate into an exasperated poll of her readers: Should she attempt a more traditional writing career? Early on, an ex-boyfriend whom she still sleeps with tells her, drunkenly, “your openness seems like an attack on your readers.” Publishing hundreds of thousands of words about your life implies you think other people should care; a private journal was an option. At 4:22 pm on April 20, Megan notes “something I have found shocking”:

no one has called me out on how self-absorbed/obsessed I am . . . how it’s weird that my lifestyle is to rarely sleep and talk almost exclusively to my parents, who I also live with, how irresponsible I am about my physical and mental health and how drugs are bad and I’m addicted . . . I don’t know whether to say ‘thank you’ or . . . No one really cares. . . . here, I’ll do it for you: MEGAN YOU ARE NOT HAPPY LIVING THIS WAY . . . YOU IDIOT YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BE ALIVE MUCH LONGER IF YOU CONTINUE ON LIKE THIS SO FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU WANT ALREADY DO YOU WANT TO BE ALIVE OR NOT.

In I Love Dick, Kraus wrote that “the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world.” Now, a young woman’s public self-destruction is so normal that it’s more likely to read as performance art than a magnet for worry or judgment. What if it’s supposed to be both? Megan has attempted suicide multiple times, she tells us. As the book goes on you identify with her; you, too, want the liveblog to be over. But you’re also nervous about what the end might mean.

Lauren Oyler is a writer living in New York.